I’m sitting in my own car at a familiar junction and the lights are on red. I’ve driven this route almost every week for the past 12 years but now I’ve lost the ability to breathe, my vision is becoming blurry, the sweat is starting to pool in my armpits and trickle down my chest. My arms shake as I grip the steering wheel. And when the lights change to green, the relief I feel is rapturous, freeing, heavenly.
Writing this down now I’m aware of how absurd it sounds. I am an adult woman of 52, I’ve lived and worked on three continents, I have a husband, a son and a giant mortgage. Oh, and I got my driver’s licence in 1982; I’m no newbie behind the wheel.
I don’t remember the precise moment the panic began. Did it creep up on me surreptitiously? I don’t know. But what I do know, is that this paralyzing feeling of terror didn’t use to happen. Why now?
Since I went through the menopause two years ago, anxiety – specifically a fear around driving on roads where there is space and speed particularly motorways and dual carriageways – sends me into frequent and frightening panic attack meltdowns. It doesn’t help that I live right next to the North Circular, one of the busiest multi-lane routes in London. It's baffling as this is the only place I seem to feel unsafe, vulnerable, exposed.
And, I’m not alone. When I mentioned this to Meg Mathews, the former music PR now menopause campaigner, who herself has been crippled by menopausal anxiety, we found ourselves cackling with recognition over our fear of open roads and lorries whizzing by. So far, so familiar to many menopausal women. Anxiety is one of the 34 symptoms of menopause.
I take the long route everywhere, am late for everything and use a hell of a lot more of public transport
Life changes, you get more worried, you’re older and you know more. Often the middle years are plagued by migraines, anxiety, fear. FUN!
Fear of driving during the menopause is a major discussion topic on forums such as Menopause Matters . It’s life-altering and can majorly affect your confidence. One woman posted an experience remarkably similar to my own.
“On the motorway, I was gripping onto the steering wheel so tight and if I had to overtake I was terrified and used to get lightheaded to the point where I didn't feel safe to continue," she said. Like me, she used to be a confident driver. She approached her GP for help and went on HRT. “Almost immediately my commute became easier and I can now actually smile whilst driving and even sing along to the radio now,” she said.
In my case, HRT hasn't seemed necessary as driving anxiety is the only insurmountable symptom I have. I don't even like taking paracetamol let alone regular hormonal treatments. However, I do think twice now about using the car as my main mode of transport.
I used to cruise to Cornwall every summer – no more. I’ll take the train thanks very much. I used to pop over to Brent Cross shopping centre – no thank you, North Circular ‘monster’ road. I basically take the long route everywhere, am late for everything and use a hell of a lot more of public transport. Better for the environment anyway, I reason.
It’s good to know there’s an actual medical reason for it – believe me, you think you’re going mad. Doctor and hormone expert Randi Hutter Epstein, who didn’t recognise her own panic attacks as menopausal initially, explains that in the same way that the menopausal drop in oestrogen can cause a hot flush, it can also cause a sudden spike adrenaline. Hence the fight or flight anxiety response to something you’ve previously been utterly relaxed about.