Why ‘the change’ is making women scared to drive
Why the menopausal is making women scared to drive: Crisis of confidence turning motorists from seasoned road-users to a gibbering wreck behind the wheel
- Martina Phelan had a line of traffic behind her and felt like she couldn’t move
- The 56-year-old, from Durham, has decades of safe driving under her belt
- She thinks the reason she clammed-up at the wheel was due to the menopause
As she nudged her car towards the roundabout, Martina Phelan suddenly felt her whole body start to shake. Despite the line of traffic bunching up behind her, she felt incapable of moving forward. Knuckles gripped tightly on the wheel, she tried desperately to ignore the chorus of horns shrieking disapproval.
‘I just froze,’ says Martina, a 56-year-old administrator who lives near Durham. ‘I felt utterly paralysed and my entire body was red hot and pouring with sweat. I was completely overwhelmed with fear and anxiety.’
Eventually, she managed to inch her way on to the roundabout, before pulling in at the first side road where she stayed, gulping air until she felt herself calming down.
Such a reaction may have been understandable were Martina a newly qualified driver or learner. But she’s neither and has decades of safe driving under her belt.
Martina Phelan (pictured above) felt incapable of moving when a row of traffic was building up behind her
A usually confident and safe driver, Martina (pictured above) believes it was the menopause which led to her feeling strange behind the wheel
So what caused this crisis of confidence that turned her from a seasoned road-user to a gibbering wreck behind the wheel?
For many women of a certain age, the answer may not be too much of a surprise – she believes it was the menopause.
After developing symptoms of ‘the change’ at 49, Martina’s motoring assuredness began to crumble to the point where she eventually felt compelled to quit both her job and driving – unable to face the 20-minute commute.
‘It was the last thing I wanted to do,’ she admits. ‘But I was completely floored by my anxiety behind the wheel. I’d get to a junction and think, “I can’t do this, I won’t get across in time.” I was constantly worried someone was going to drive into me. I’d panic and get confused about changing gears, and stall. And I couldn’t control it. I’d set off in good faith and find myself pulling over almost immediately, shaking and crying.
‘Sometimes, I’d even leave the car and walk home. It was just another way in which the menopause had tipped my world on its head.
‘I had the most terrible mood swings, depression – I felt so low, unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I just couldn’t sleep, which made everything else so much worse. I was at my wits’ end. And in the midst of all this, something as simple as driving, which had been as natural to me as breathing and which was key to my independence, was suddenly something I simply couldn’t do. I was in utter despair.’
THE MENOPAUSAL MOTORIST – A NATIONWIDE PROBLEM
Martina is not alone. Countless forums on the internet, such as Menopause Matters, testify to a phenomenon rarely discussed in public: the menopausal driver.
After developing symptoms of ‘the change’ at 49, Martina’s motoring assuredness began to crumble (Martina pictured above)
Martina (pictured above) is not alone. Countless forums on the internet, such as Menopause Matters, testify to a phenomenon rarely discussed in public
Yet in extreme cases, motoring and the menopause can be a combustible combination. In January, 50-year-old recruitment consultant Angela Rose-Gorrell was banned from driving after being caught three times over the limit on the M61.
Angela Rose-Gorrell (pictured above) was banned from driving after being caught three times over the limit on the M61
Her lawyer said: ‘Angela began finding it difficult to manage her stress and was having panic attacks – these were symptoms of the menopause. She did not speak to people but started drinking wine to calm down.’
About 13 million women in the UK are currently approaching (when symptoms begin), going through, or have gone through the menopause – roughly a third of the female population.
Evidence shows that about one woman in four has symptoms that adversely affect her personal and working life.
Hormonal changes lead to hot flushes and low libido, as well as problems with memory and concentration, and difficulty sleeping. Women can also develop menopausal anxiety – panic attacks or loss of confidence that can affect everyday tasks, such as driving.
‘I hear of this a lot,’ says GP Dr Louise Newson, from the Newson Health Menopause and Wellness Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
‘And it isn’t really surprising. A drop in oestrogen and testosterone may well affect certain pathways in the brain that are linked to anxiety.
‘As a result, women can feel overwhelmed or – in their own words – irrationally anxious. They suddenly panic about something that has never troubled them before. And driving is a classic example of this.’
A new study, from the University of Melbourne (pictured above) found concentration levels dropped by 40 per cent due to the menopause
Science backs this up. A University of Melbourne study found that women’s concentration levels, memory and ability to carry out ordinary tasks dropped by up to 40 per cent due to the menopause.
Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Cambridge, believes part of the problem for menopausal drivers is the fear of loss of control.
She says: ‘Symptoms such as hot flushes can happen without warning and if it happens when you’re driving, that can be hugely stressful since you become distracted.
‘Anxiety and mood changes mean that you can lose focus.
A professor at the University of Cambridge (pictured above) says fear for menopausal drivers is the loss of control
‘So where once driving was a simple, automatic process, someone with anxiety issues or menopausal symptoms may really feel bothered by the demands on attention, such as traffic or things coming at her from all sides.’
THE TERROR OF A PANIC ATTACK AT THE WHEEL
During a panic attack, the body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode. It pumps out hormones, such as adrenaline, which makes the heart beat faster and the muscles tense up. Breathing quickens as the lungs try to take in extra oxygen and sufferers can find themselves dripping in sweat – even when they are sitting still. Normally, this is a natural response to a perceived threat or danger, and the body’s way of preparing us for action. However, in those suffering from anxiety, this reflex goes haywire, happening randomly, with the slightest provocation.
Most panic attacks last just a few minutes but they can be terrifying, and sufferers often believe they are having a heart attack.
WHAT IS MENOPAUSE?
Menopause is defined as the changes a woman goes through just before and after she stops her periods and is no longer able to get pregnant naturally.
Some women go through this time with few, if any, symptoms, around 60 percent experience symptoms resulting in behavioral changes and one in four will suffer severely.
Common symptoms include hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness leading to discomfort during sex, disrupted sleep, decreased sex drive, problems with memory and concentration and mood swings.
Menopause happens when your ovaries stop producing as much of the hormone oestrogen and no longer release an egg each month.
In the UK, the average age for a woman to reach the menopause is 51, according to the NHS.
Fiona Scott, 53, had, in her own words, always been a ‘supremely confident’ driver – until she began going through the menopause about 18 months ago.
As a TV series producer filming around the country, she thought nothing of driving 15,000 miles a year – until she went through the menopause.
She says: ‘I remember driving from my home in Swindon to a work event in Gloucestershire and as I went down the dark country lanes – lanes I knew like the back of my hand – I started to panic.
‘I felt utterly out of control, even though I’d done this journey at night countless times.
‘I pulled in to a layby and sat there in the dark for ages thinking, “How can this be happening to me?” It just didn’t make sense.
‘I managed to calm myself down and finally crawled along at 20mph to get home, stopping every few miles.’
She adds: ‘It was so strange because I’m not an anxious person. I was totally focused in all other areas of my life – running a business, looking after my family. But the anxiety was overwhelming when I was behind the wheel.’
Fiona, who is married with three children, is now selective about where she goes.
‘I need my car. But I allow ridiculous amounts of time to do even the simplest journey.
‘I’ll study the route first and look at the traffic to make sure I don’t get stuck. And I avoid winding roads like the plague.’
She has quit attending things that are not absolutely necessary – such as business networking events – and dreads parking, something that once came naturally.
‘If I don’t see three spaces together I won’t attempt to park, as I’m terrified I won’t get in. It’s irrational but I get so hot and anxious, it’s just not worth the stress.
‘Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get my confidence back.’
SUFFERERS ARE UNFAIRLY CLASSEDD AS ‘BAD DRIVERS’
Jenny Byrom, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Birmingham Women’s Hospital, says anxiety is a common symptom of the menopause. ‘It can make women almost agoraphobic – as I see from my own clinic. The last thing such women would want to do is get in the car and take charge.’
Life coach Jane Evans, 57, from Chippenham in Wiltshire, suffers too and says the impact on women’s driving has been woefully underestimated. ‘The problem is women won’t talk about it because we’re often dismissed as bad drivers or simply hysterical.
‘It’s not as if I can’t cope with stress. When I went through the menopause a few years ago, I was working with victims of domestic violence – a really stressful job. Driving hardly compares.’
Jane says her confidence behind the wheel was only restored when menopausal symptoms subsided.
So does this mean menopausal women are not safe to be driving?
Criminal defence lawyer Nick Freeman, who specialises in dealing with traffic offences, says a woman whose driving is adversely affected by menopausal symptoms could be stripped of her licence. ‘The symptoms of the menopause could justify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency [DVLA] requiring further medical information.
‘In the worst cases, this could mean the surrender or suspension of their driving licence.’
He warns that menopausal symptoms such as anxiety attacks are not a legal defence in the case of a serious road accident.
A spokesman for the DVLA said: ‘The menopause itself is not a notifiable medical condition, but all drivers have a legal duty to make sure they are medically fit to drive. We would advise anyone experiencing symptoms that could affect their fitness to drive to speak to their GP.’
GET BACK ON THE ROAD… TO BEAT YOUR ANXIETY
IF the menopause is affecting your driving, what can you do? Prof Sahakian suggests regular exercise, since a 2017 study in the International Journal Of Gerontology found walking helped ease menopausal symptoms and promoted psychological wellbeing. She adds: ‘But above all, get back in the car. Simply take a drive around the block at the quietest time of day. Then do a bit more the following day. This will build your confidence.’
Dr Newson believes having the right type of HRT is important for dealing with anxiety triggered by the menopause, and that this could be key to regaining confidence behind the wheel.
Martina said she has also taken up running (stock image above) and try to walk as much as she can instead of driving
The main hormones used in HRT are oestrogen and progestogen – a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone. HRT involves either taking both of these hormones (combined HRT) or just oestrogen (oestrogen-only HRT).
‘There are different types of doses so it’s important to get the right one for you,’ adds Dr Newson.
Psychotherapist Geraldine Joaquim, who runs a clinic in Petworth, West Sussex, believes it is important not to overthink what might happen when you get into the car – be it, she says, having a hot flush or worrying whether you’ll lose concentration.
‘Over-thinking racks up the stress hormones, increasing levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which create a spiral of anxiety. The more you worry about the future, the more stressed you feel without being able to actually do anything about it.’
Martina has now said that in order to overcome anxiety she has started taking Zumba classes (stock image above)
Martina Phelan has finally overcome her driving anxiety after months of counselling to address her fears, as well as taking HRT.
She has also taken up Zumba and running, and walks as much as she can – driving only when absolutely necessary.
She says: ‘I live in a little village where I can shop locally. I would say to women who feel the menopause is stopping them from driving, don’t push yourself into it when you are not up to it.
‘Just take your time, be kind to yourself and don’t be afraid to get the help you need.’
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