“I used to love going out, socializing, dancing… Now it’s just gone.” “I have to force myself to socialize.” “I feel safe at home; when I go out I’m anxious the whole time.” “None of my girlfriends are going through this, so I have no one to talk to.” “I’m running out of excuses to say ‘no.’” – real quotes from real women in perimenopause and menopause.

Other people can irritate you by breathing funny, but being alone intensifies the anxiety and depression. Or maybe your body is doing things you’d rather not share with others. Or you might be unhappy about your appearance or your attitude and don’t think you’d make good company right now.

Isolation is a pretty common phenomenon for women in the perimenopause/menopause transition. Whether the isolation is voluntary or a result of life circumstances, it’s not always a good or healthy thing to restrict your social circles and contacts.

So why do we find ourselves feeling so separate and alone? What are the consequences of too much solitude, and what can we do when being social feels (or is) impossibly hard?

Why do so many women feel isolated in menopause?

First, we should draw a distinction between isolation and being alone. Many women find they relish time alone, especially as creativity increases in midlife. Alone time is time to focus on writing or reading or meditating or painting or whatever hobby or interest has (re)surfaced to demand our attention.

Isolation is involuntary, whether it’s a reluctance to leave the house or the feeling of not having anyone to share confidences with.  

There are lots of reasons – and lots of theories – but some major themes crop up again and again in these discussions.

  1. Irritability. As estrogen declines, it often takes with it some of our urge to nurture others. We may find we’re simply less tolerant of other people’s company, less willing to put up with behaviors that didn’t seem so annoying in the past.
  2. Anxiety. Feelings of doom and gloom or fear of panic attacks make small talk over brunch seem impossible.
  3. Depression. Depression can spike, especially in perimenopause, says Pauline Maki, professor of psychology and psychiatry and an OB/GYN at the University of Illinois–Chicago College of Medicine. And that can leave many women vulnerable to crippling isolation.
  4. Fatigue. The exhaustion that often comes as a menopause by-product may make an evening with television so much more appealing than one with friends.
  5. Embarrassment. Digestive issues, hair loss, weight gain, body odor…while we’re likely far more aware of these things in ourselves than others are in us, it can be hard to spend time with others when you’re not sure if you’ll leak when you laugh.
  6. Stigma. Because as a society we’re still so reluctant to discuss menopause – and because we’re still so youth-obsessed – women are ashamed to admit they’re in the throes of The Change, even to each other.
  7. Divorce. “Grey divorces” are increasingly common, and while some women are relieved to be out of the relationship, they may also have lost access to their usual social circles.

Being social is good for us

Even if you’re naturally an introvert, a little time with others is still good for you. We’re healthier and tend to live longer when we interact with other humans.

According to Maria Cohut at Medical News Today, when we have face-to-face contact (of the right kind, of course), we get a burst of oxytocin, the “love” hormone that reduces cortisol levels, reducing stress. Relationships can lower our perception of pain, improve memory, help protect our brains from neurodegenerative disease, promote healthful habits like mindful eating and exercise, and reduce our risk of depression.

Inhabitants of “blue zones” (where people routinely live very long lives) are almost universally social, with strong interpersonal connections.

However, it’s important, says Harvard Health, that you know and respect your limitations when it comes to socializing. If you’re finding socializing the way you used to is adding to your stress without providing much benefit, you may need to find other ways to connect.

Get your groove back

So what do you do when you want to want to get out there but you can’t quite make it happen?

Reduce barriers. What’s holding you back? Is it really fear of incontinence or embarrassment about weight gain? Is it fatigue at the end of the day? If you’re not quite ready to jump into the party scene, start working through the things holding you back. Look into incontinence underwear or make an appointment with a pelvic PT. Whatever it is, working towards solutions can be energizing and confidence building, so it’s a win-win.  

Be the reason. Instead of doing what you’ve done before, take a different tack: what is something you love to do? Rock climbing? Quilting? Cooking? Mountain biking? Golden retrievers? Is there a club you can join with other people who share your passion? It’s an automatic conversation starter and fall back when the small talk stalls.

Volunteer. Being of service to others is great in and of itself, but when it also provides a distraction from your own swirling thoughts, it’s even better. Just choose carefully: are you more likely to enjoy planting trees or working with seniors or helping at the local food bank? There are lots of good and useful things to do, and if you pick one that works for you, you’re more likely to stay with it.

Get a dog. Honestly, we just think everyone should have a dog because they’re wonderful, but having a dog is a great way to make new friends. Taking your dog for a walk, maybe joining a group training or hitting the local dog park are great ways to meet folks. Plus dogs are good for your health too.

Stay in and in control. If “out” is overwhelming, invite a few friends over and bring the party to you. Keep it low-key and within your limits – order in instead of cooking if cooking adds stress. Give your gathering a start AND an end time to keep from feeling trapped or overwhelmed.

Be social at work. If you’re truly an introvert, giving up alone time may seem more like a punishment than a benefit. Use breaks, lunch with colleagues, quick chats in the corridor to fill that need for human contact. For some of us, that may be enough, and that’s OK.

Take it high tech. If you live in an area where socializing is challenging, or if the thought of meeting actual people fills you with dread, make it easy on yourself. While online socializing may not provide all the same health benefits as in-person, it’s a smart gateway. Games, clubs, Facebook groups are all good ways to meet folks like you and strengthen social skills before taking it IRL.

Talk with a doc. If your reluctance to socialize rises to the level of social phobia or social anxiety disorder or is seriously impacting your life, talk with a doctor about medications or other treatments that can help you feel more at ease. It’s possible your anxiety is due to medications you’re taking or an underlying medical condition that a doctor can help you identify and treat.

It’s important to take the pressure off the situation. Meet for coffee instead of a meal. Go for a bike ride or a walk instead of a dress-up affair. Just take a first step and call up a friend. Make a plan that’s as loose or as detailed as you want.

Most of all, understand that this isn’t you being “lazy” or “boring” or “old.” Shifts in hormones and mood are real and can be deeply impactful, so do what you need to do to feel right with your life, whether that’s date night with the partner once a week or chess in the park with passersby or coffee and cupcakes with a buddy. Because cupcakes.

If you’re dealing with social isolation, what’s causing it in your case? Have you taken steps to overcome, or are you just riding it out for now? You can comment here, find us on Facebook or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our Facebook group. You can also join us, anonymously, if you prefer, on our community forums. 

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Shannon Perry

Shannon is a celebrated author and global educator. Whether she’s interviewing a physician or producing a podcast, her appetite for research, facts, and truth culminates in credible health education and programming that women can rely on. An avid runner, cyclist, and climber, Shannon knows a thing or two about thriving in midlife and lives in Seattle with her cat, dog and boyfriend.

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