Hot flashes – what the heck are they?
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
The meeting’s about to start. Suddenly a heat rushes through your whole body. Sweat is dripping from your forehead and from under your arms. You lose focus over what colleagues are saying. All you can think about is tearing your clothes off. You’d kill for an ice bath. But that’s not an option. The heat stops. You start to shiver.
“It's only been a minute? Felt like a lifetime. Did anyone notice?”
Hot flashes are probably the most talked about, feared, and mysterious menopause symptom. So, what the heck are they?
What are hot flashes?
Hot flashes, medically known as vasomotor symptoms, are one of the most common menopause symptoms. Around eighty percent of women will experience them. They are the most common reason women seek medical care during perimenopause. A fifth of women never gets them. The hot sensation can be accompanied by sweating. You may also get a headache, have heart palpitations, feel dizzy, tired, and feel anxious. On average, a woman will have hot flashes from ten times a day to several times a week. The hot flash usually lasts less than five minutes.
The science behind hot flashes
Experts have not reached a consensus on what exactly causes hot flashes, but it is thought that the decline in estrogen levels that starts to happen during perimenopause affects the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls your body’s temperature. The hot flashes come because the hormonal changes cause this thermostat to be more sensitive to changes in your body’s temperature. When even slight fluctuations are detected, your hypothalamus thinks you are too warm and sets off hot flashes to cool you down.
When do they start and how long do they last?
Hot flashes last from 6 months to several years. Hot flashes may start already during perimenopause, the transitional period before menopause which usually starts around one is in their forties. Women whose hot flashes start during this time have them for an average of 9-10 years. They may also start later when periods have stopped completely and you have entered menopause. Then the average duration is only about three and a half years. But some women even experience them more than ten years after menopause.
Mysterious and unpredictable in nature
Just like people have different personalities and life experiences, hot flashes can be very different from woman to woman. The reason they vary so much is unknown. The number of hot flashes you get and how severe they are can change over time. They may be mild and hardly noticeable, or they can be very disruptive to everyday life. At night, they are known as night sweats. Usually, this means waking up several times during the night soaked in sweat, which can cause insomnia and anxiety.
What triggers them?
Although it’s not possible to reverse or stop hot flashes we can each learn to identify the things that trigger them and make them worse. Then we can make lifestyle changes to help us cope with them. Triggers are different for each person. Some include stress, caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, and alcohol. In the Olivia app, you can track your triggers so you can better understand and manage your hot flashes.
What you can do to manage hot flashes
Part of the enigma and perhaps frustration of hot flashes are that it’s still not possible to predict for how long you will go through them. But there are things you can do to ease the situation, so don’t fret. You can prepare practically by for example dressing in layers to make it easier to throw off garments, bringing a portable fan wherever you go, or keeping a cooling pad in the fridge … But more about that in the Olivia app.
For now, here are a few tips to deal with the emotional stress hot flashes can create. Research shows that anxiety is linked with more intense hot flashes. By managing anxiety and fears related to hot flashes, one can also be better emotionally prepared to handle the heat waves when they come.
Mentally prepare for the heat
When you feel it coming, it’s normal for panic to arise in you or to feel self-conscious about it. Here are some mental tricks/attitudes you can use to help yourself through it and find calm in your hot storm.
1. Choose calm over fear - don’t panic!
When the heatwave comes, it’s common to panic and feel like it’s a total catastrophe. In reality, it’s not the end of the world - but your thoughts can take you there. Change the “oh no” to a welcoming feeling, even if it feels unnatural.
2. Pause, think and let go of control
Hot flashes happen. You cannot always control them - that’s okay. You can, however, choose your reactions to them. An empowering way to think about it could be to say to yourself: “Okay, now it’s coming. That’s fine. It will happen regardless of how I feel, so come on hot flash, bring it on!”
3. Sit with it. Welcome it
Instead of distracting yourself, try sitting with the experience. Let yourself feel the emotions and observe them. It is hard to stay calm and collected when your body is doing something you really don’t want it to do. But welcoming the feeling even when it feels overwhelming, can help it pass quicker. “I am sweating. I am warm. That is ok” could be a helpful mantra to repeat in your head.
4. Breathe through it to help you ride the wave
Last but not least - remember to breathe. Instead of just riding the wave, it is easy to make the situation worse than it has to be. When panicking, the heart rate goes up which can make you feel more flustered.
Most importantly remember that hot flashes are natural and nothing to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. It gets easier when you know what they are and that you’re far from the only one experiencing them. It also helps to speak about your experiences with other women, your children, and your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to reach out for support.