black woman looking depressed and upset

When I was 35, I decided to freeze my eggs. I was working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley and the expectations around hours and workload were not for the faint of heart. While some of my friends had a fairly easy time during their egg freezing process, my experience with the hormone treatments was disruptive to all aspects of life, especially at work. I remember non-stop crying during my hour-long train commute, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was just “that person” crying for no reason on the train. I remember a day when the pain was so severe that I was lying on the ground at my office with my laptop so that I could at least get a little something done. A male colleague walked by and asked if I was okay. Rather than tell him what was really wrong, I told him I was under the weather and would be fine.

Women across the country are experiencing health issues that only we can truly understand and relate to. More often than not, we find ourselves suffering in silence. Over 200 thousand women go through IVF every year in the U.S. Around five million women are pregnant every year, and the first trimester of trying to hide the nausea and fatigue while still getting your work done is no easy feat. There are over 39 million working women over the age of 40 who will experience the symptoms of perimenopause and menopause, which will very likely interrupt their workday.

When I asked a C level executive how she handled the hot flashes during menopause, she said, “I just tried to pretend like it wasn’t happening!” She was dripping sweat during a meeting, experiencing severe brain fog, and she just hoped her colleagues wouldn’t notice.

We try to conduct “business as usual,” but sometimes the hormonal changes we experience won’t allow it. So we plough through it. We might be exhausted because of multiple sleep disruptions, irritable or anxious, nauseated, and finding it hard to concentrate, but we do our very best to get it together because we have to.

The consequences are just too great. We don’t want to be passed over for the next promotion. We don’t want to be pigeonholed or viewed as unreliable. We don’t want to be seen as a complainer who isn’t “up for the job.” So we suffer through it. Here’s the thing: If you had COVID, a torn ACL, or even something as severe as cancer, you likely wouldn’t have an issue communicating what’s wrong and asking for what you need. What people of all genders need to realize is that women’s health is human health. 

It’s a personal decision as to whether you want to share the specifics of what’s going on with you, and every person and every environment is different. However, it is your right to prioritize your health and well-being. It’s okay to say that you’re not feeling well or that you have a health issue, and then ask for what you need. It could be flexible hours for doctor’s appointments, a need for remote working on certain days, or actually using the sick days that are allocated to you. But, this is an invitation to check in, identify what you need, and ask for it!

That said, there will still be moments when you’re experiencing discomfort due to hormonal shifts. In these moments I invite you to breathe.

3 Breathing Tips for Women’s Health at Work

#1) Brain Fog

Most are familiar with “pregnancy brain,” but brain fog can happen in a number of circumstances, whether it’s during fertility treatment, menopause, or even your monthly menstrual period. You can’t focus, you’re forgetting things, and sometimes just making simple mistakes. 

When this is the case, I invite you to try the Humming Bee Breath for focus and concentration. Find a private place where you won’t be disturbed, plug your ears with your thumbs, cover your eyes with your fingers, take a deep inhalation, and exhale a hum for as long as possible. Repeat this for 5-10 breaths or for 3-5 minutes and notice how you feel. This technique might look and sound weird, but know that it’s been practiced for thousands of years and it will bring your mind into full focus so that you can tackle anything you need to do today!

#2) Mood Swings

It’s no secret that hormones can cause mood disruptions. You might suddenly find yourself wanting to cry. You might find yourself unusually irritable. Yet, you need to get your work done, go to meetings, and interact with colleagues. In these moments it’s important to find some grounding. 

Try this somatic breathing technique to recenter. Place one hand on your heart, and one hand on your belly. Take 10 deep breaths. As you inhale, allow your belly to expand, gently pushing against your hand. As you exhale, feel your belly come towards your spine. This practice will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and you will experience a feeling of peace and calm.

#3) Sleep Disruptions & Exhaustion 

According to the National Institutes of Health, 94% of women suffer from fatigue during pregnancy and 85% during menopause. Fatigue is also one of the most common side effects of IVF treatment. Yet, we typically keep the same workload and hours even though we clearly have less energy. 

If you’re constantly exhausted and finding it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep at night, I invite you to try 4-7-8 breathing. This technique is amazing for quieting a busy mind, calming any anxiety, and allowing your mind and your body to finally rest. While you can do this in the middle of your day if you’re stressed, it’s also very powerful when you’re lying in bed trying to sleep. Just allow your body to relax, inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale for a count of 8. Repeat this until you fall asleep. Give it a try and see for yourself!

Zee Clarke is the author of the book, Black People Breathe (Penguin Random House). She has been featured in many leading publications including ABC, Fortune, Forbes, CNBC, Ebony, Essence, and Fast Company.

She is a Harvard Business School graduate who applies holistic healing practices to corporate environments. Zee leads transformative workshops on mindfulness, breathwork and stress management tools at organizations such as Google, Visa, AMC Networks and more.

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