I was scared I was dying – but it was the menopause
Lisa Hall was told she was too young for the menopause. But a severe panic attack led to a surprising discovery…
While driving on the motorway one day, Lisa Hall, 46, experienced a panic attack so severe she took to her bed for four days. At first, she had no idea of the cause, before discovering it was linked to the menopause. She is a stay-at-home mum and lives in Surrey with husband Will, who works in finance and their 11-year-old son. Here she shares her story...
“Driving home from holiday last summer, I suddenly began to feel a little strange. It came out of the blue. One minute I had my hands on the wheel and was focusing on the motorway ahead. The next minute, I felt tense and on edge as if the world was pressing in on me.
I continued driving for a few minutes, thinking the sensation of ‘overwhelm’ would subside but – for my own safety and that of my husband and son in the passenger seats – I knew I couldn’t go on. I pulled over, telling my husband that I couldn’t drive and we swapped over.
By the time we got home, I hoped the horrible tense feeling might go away but it only got worse.
I couldn’t stop trembling and wondered about taking a sleeping tablet. But I was petrified that I wouldn’t wake up again if I took it. Having never suffered with any kind of anxiety before, it was such a debilitating sensation and I felt completely irrational.
I developed a terrible brain fog and I was unable to remember simple words. I was terrified that I might be developing early onset dementia or something was wrong with my brain.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was so scared that if I drifted off I would die. Utterly exhausted, I couldn’t leave my bed. Everything became blurry. That night I remember my husband asking if an ambulance should be called but I insisted that I couldn’t leave my bed. I was too scared to go to hospital.
My husband felt helpless and we didn’t know what to do but I felt like I’d been sucked into a deep, black hole.
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After a sleepless night, I called my GP for an emergency phone appointment, as I was worried that something was seriously wrong. I explained my symptoms and she thought it was a panic attack and prescribed a beta-blocker. I was reluctant to take such a strong medication but had no other option as the overwhelming feeling wouldn’t subside. It helped a little and after four long days, I could finally leave my bed.
But two weeks later, in the lead-up to my period, I had another smaller relapse and texted a friend saying I needed help. She was brilliant. She seemed to also think that this panic attack could be connected to hormones and suggested I see a hormone specialist.
She very kindly rang her own specialist to see if there had been a cancellation and I was relieved to be able to get an appointment. It was the start of my recovery. Because it turned out that this panic attack wasn’t dementia, I wasn’t dying – it was the start of the menopause.
Read more: Emma Thompson calls for menopause to become protected characteristic in Equality Act
Crying for no reason
Although my experience was horrific, looking back it wasn’t my very first symptom of menopause, although I didn’t realise it at the time. I’d felt a few ‘changes’ since reaching my early forties. My regular 28-day cycle had shortened to 21 days and although I’d never struggled with pre-menstrual tension (PMT) before, I found that in the days leading up to my period I’d be very tearful, crying for no reason at all.
It would usually happen in the evenings. Something very trivial would set me off and I’d be in floods of tears. But the next day I’d start my period and so then I’d understand it must be down to my hormones.
I’d had a few hot sweats and I noticed that I was not firing on all cylinders. Nothing quite so bad as the brain fog that descended on me during my panic attack, but occasionally I couldn’t finish a sentence or I’d forget a word.
My friends and I had discussed these symptoms and they had suggested it might be menopausal. But when I visited my GP, she said I was too young for hormone replacement therapy, even though I was 45*.
[*The average age for menopause in the UK is 51 and some doctors are reluctant to prescribe HRT to younger women. Although one in a hundred women go through menopause under the age of 45, this is classed as ‘premature menopause’.]
She had suggested I keep beta blockers on me just in case I felt a panic attack arise again. I left the appointment at a loss, but knowing that I had to get to the bottom of it, as there would be days where I could barely function, on edge and feeling overwhelmed. I tried many different supplements to try to beat this feeling of being on edge but nothing seemed to help.
Read more: How menopause can affect your mood and other things you need to know
It was eight weeks after my initial panic attack than I finally managed to find a lovely female doctor Dr Ghazala Aziz-Scott at the Marion Gluck Clinic, which runs online appointments. She seemed to understand what was happening to me.
It wasn’t only physical but psychological too. I had lost both my parents at a young age and Dr Aziz-Scott said that I’d lived my life in a constant stage of fight-or-flight. I’d coped with it for so long but the hormonal changes of menopause meant that that kind of living was no longer sustainable. My body simply couldn’t cope with it any longer which explained the endless panic attack.
I was prescribed Melatonin to help me sleep and she put me on 100mg of bio-identical Progesterone to balance out my hormones. But a few weeks later, I was still tearful. She upped my dose to 200mg. I was also put on testosterone cream daily to give me a boost in energy. Incredibly, within just weeks I was feeling back to normal.
Read more: Carol Vorderman says menopause made her 'feel suicidal' but HRT really helped
Hormone treatment changed everything
I can’t quite believe that peri-menopause could lead me to such a dark moment in my life. I really felt as if I was losing my mind and going crazy. I had no idea that something as simple as hormone replacement could eradicate the sleeplessness, the fatigue and the sense that my world was overwhelming me. But it has. I’ve had no brain fog, no crying episodes, no panic attacks for around six months.
[Lisa took bioidentical hormones which are hormone preparations made from plant sources that are promoted as being similar or identical to human hormones, according to the NHS. Practitioners claim these hormones are a 'natural' and safer alternative to standard HRT medicines.]
Nor have I needed to take any more beta blockers since being prescribed hormones. The NHS will also only prescribe a combination of oestrogen and progesterone together, but blood tests pointed to me being oestrogen-dominant, hence why I’m on progesterone only. But this is unobtainable on the NHS.
The hormone replacement gave me my life back. Just knowing that there was a word for what I was experiencing and it had a name – perimenopause – and that I could be prescribed hormones was such a relief.
But it makes me feel guilty that more women don’t have access to private clinics like this and can’t all pay hundreds of pounds for an appointment. Although I’ve never taken them, I think some GPs seem too keen to prescribe antidepressants to women who have symptoms like mine when actually, it might be simply hormones they need."
Read more: The most common mental health conditions – and where to get help
If you are in need of support, you can call the Samaritans day or night, 365 days a year for free on 116 123, email them at email@example.com, or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
Mind's helpline is 0300 123 3393, their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and their website is www.mind.org.uk.
If you think you may be experience the menopause or suffering from mental health problems, you are also advised to speak to your GP for advice.