Change Your Mind for Happiness

Women in midlife face many changes -- the kids are grown and many women are either retiring or returning to the workplace after years at home.

And, then, of course, there are the physical changes such as menopause, sagging skin and crow's feet. Such changes can spark anxiety over the aging process. Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati and Miami University of Ohio, visits The Early Show to discuss why women are insecure about aging and to examine the six areas where women they can adjust their attitudes and learn to feel good about themselves.

So what is it, exactly, that makes so many women unhappy about entering mid-life? Kearney-Cook says, "First, there are the physiological changes- there's menopause or perimenopause. And, then there are the psychological factors - for women who've had children, the kids are grown and leaving the nest, or older women who've delayed having children are questioning that decision and having anxiety around those issues. And, then your parents are older and sometimes you're starting to take care of them."

This can be extremely overwhelming, says Kearney-Cook, partly because of the role reversal. Suddenly, middle-aged women are taking care of their parents and their parents' physical needs, when in the past, the parents took care of them.

There is also the tendency to think, 'Wait a minute! I'm half way through life - is that all there is?' Employment insecurity begins to be an issue. "There is," Kearney-Cook says, "fear among mid-lifers about jobs and careers. It used to be if you worked for Proctor and Gamble, you'd have a job for life. Now, there's downsizing and you don't have the job security you once did."

Romantic relationships also oftentimes begin to come into question. Kearney-Cook "hear[s] a lot of women say that there were so busy raising the kids that it didn't matter that their husbands didn't meet their needs. But now, they aren't happy. It's a time when some marriages don't survive."

In additon to the emotional upheaval that comes with middle age, there are, of course, the physical changes. Members of the baby-boomer generation, to which Kearney-Cook belongs herself, often say "I'm 55 but I feel like I'm 30." For those women who are still mentally young, says Kearney-Cook, there is a sense that their bodies have betrayed them.

Still, Kearney-Cook stresses that aging isn't all bad. When asked if she considers there to be a positive component to aging, she responds, "Absolutely."

"Usually, you've lived life and have 40 or 50 years under your belt - you have some experience and wisdom. Women are conditioned to pay attention to what others need and suddenly they can start paying attention to their needs.

Women are starting to 'let it rip' a little.' They are saying, 'I'm a big girl now and I'm going to talk about what I want. And do what I want.' You see individuals who are freed up to be more authentic and to speak their minds. It's a time when people can be very creative. They have more time to think about things. And, I think they can use their wisdom to renegotiate relationships and make them healthier."

Middle age can be an extremely rewarding period in a woman's life, says Kearney-Cook, because it's time to be "different." Women in their 20s or other stages of young adulthood are expected to spend time building careers and starting families.

A lot of times, these expected milestones are not a woman's first choice. In middle age, she can redefine her mission by developing some physical, mental and/or spiritual energy and refocus. Middle-aged woman can set new goals that align with their life experience and values. They can be courageous and try new things.

But what if you've always had trouble accepting yourself for who you are - can you learn to change as you get older? According to Kearney-Cook, "Sometimes we have an outdated version of ourselves. We continue to think of ourselves as we were. If you say, 'I can't ride a bike' that might have been true when you were 25, but you have had other life experiences now and you might be able to ride one now."

Kearney-Cook has six suggestions for making us happier as we age:

  • Set a Realistic Weight Goal:
    Kearney-Cook says, "Basically, in my practice I see a woman in her 40s or 50s who says she's let herself go. She's had three kids, she's menopausal, gained 40 pounds and may be on some medications. I ask what is a realistic goal for her and she'll tell me she wants to lose 50 pounds. But, in reality, when you look at her genetics, her lifestyle, medications - 50 pounds aren't realistic. What people typically do is that they try to lose too much weight - a weight loss that can't be maintained. Once they lose weight - they have to eat so little and exercise so much that they can't maintain that kind of loss. What you need to do is set up something that is realistic so it can be achieved and maintained."

  • Beat Emotional Eating: Kearney-Cook says, "Overeating goes on for three main reasons. The first is that you didn't eat enough earlier in the day and have set yourself up to overeat later. Secondly, people overeat to handle or regulate emotions. You're sad or bored and food makes life more pleasurable. And then, there's food and relationships. Food can't say no. It's a perfect relationship. And to deal with that, you have to learn to delay gratification. I tell my clients that when they want to binge, they have to wait 15 minutes. Then after 15 minutes, they have to take out all the food they are going to eat and put it on the table in front of them and sit down and enjoy it. This exercise teaches you to postpone gratification. And, gratification is a learned skill."
  • Exercise for Strength and Power: Kearney-Cook says, "I'd like us to think of exercise differently. It isn't just something to help you lose weight. It can help you build strength within yourself. It's not just about, 'I am going to go work out because I overate last night.' This is about exercise as a discipline. Maybe you're in training for a charity walk or run. People who use this method report that it spills over into other parts of their life. Exercise builds inner and outer strength. And just because you didn't do sports as a kid - it doesn't mean you can't do it as an adult. I give these guidelines -
    -Make it a goal you can attain in six months
    -Tell other people
    -Keep a journal.
    -Day of activity - take a picture.
    -Exercise can give you a voice to parts of you you didn't develop when you were younger."
  • Commit to Deliberate Self-Care: Kearney-Cook says, "You have to remember that your life isn't going to last forever. The body is the house you live in. When you get up in the morning, you will always be with yourself. You have to take yourself seriously and take taking care of yourself seriously. You have an important mission. You are going to have to have the physical and strength and energy to see you through your life."
  • Assess Relationships:
    Kearney-Cook says, "You need to look at the relationships in your life and see how they can develop. Oftentimes, it's time to renegotiate. You can be in charge of your life. You don't have to be defined by others. Before you can have a healthy relationship with food and your body, you have to have a healthy relationship with the people in your life."
  • Strut Your Stuff: Kearney-Cook says, "This came out of a time when my daughter turned 16, as did a bunch of her friends. Mothers and daughters all went out to dinner and then to see Tina Turner, who was well into her 60s. At the beginning of the concert these beautiful young dancers came out. But, when Tina Turner came out - no one else existed but her. This woman has gone through life - overcome all kinds of problems. She's been up and down. And, all I could think was here she was 'strutting her stuff' after all she's been through. And that's what's important. Learning not to hide. She didn't have a perfect life - but she's out there. It's about saying 'I'm in mid-life and I'm going to do the best I can with what I have.'"

    "Change Your Mind, Change Your Body" is published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, parent company of CBS.

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