Women who are "mindful" in their everyday activities seem to suffer fewer menopause symptoms, new research suggests.
The study couldn't prove that it was the mindfulness that was keeping symptoms at bay, but it does add to evidence for a link, said lead researcher Dr. Richa Sood. She's a women's health specialist at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.
"Mindfulness" has been described in different ways. This study used a common definition: Being attentive to the present moment during everyday activities, rather than going on autopilot.
Why would that have any effect on menopause symptoms? Sood explained that mindfulness can change the way people respond to potentially stressful situations, including physical symptoms.
When menopause symptoms arise, Sood said, some women "get nervous," or otherwise react in a way that might worsen what they're feeling.
"Mindfulness is about saying, 'I will attend to what I'm feeling, without getting entangled with it,'" Sood said.
The study included 1,744 women aged 40 to 65 who were surveyed about any menopause symptoms, daily stressors and their level of mindfulness.
Sood's team gauged mindfulness with a standard questionnaire that asked women to rate their agreement with statements like: "I tend to walk quickly to get where I'm going without paying attention to what I experience along the way"; "I snack without being aware of what I'm eating"; and "I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past."
In general, menopause symptoms declined as mindfulness rose. For each point women gained in mindfulness scores, their menopause symptom ratings declined by an average of four points, the study found.
And the connection was particularly strong among women who reported more daily stressors -- especially when it came to psychological menopause symptoms, like irritability, exhaustion and depressed mood.
"That makes sense," Sood said. If mindfulness helps people deal with stress in a healthier way, then any benefits should be stronger among women who report more daily stress, she explained.
This type of study cannot prove cause and effect, said Dr. JoAnn Pinkerton, executive director of the North American Menopause Society.
The best way to do that, she said, is through a clinical trial testing the effects of mindfulness training -- such as meditation practice -- on menopause symptoms.
So far, there have only some small pilot studies on that question, said Pinkerton, who was not involved in the new research.
But, she said, there have been some promising results. One trial, for example, found that a program called mindfulness-based stress reduction helped ease the distress women felt when hot flashes arose. It combines meditation techniques and gentle yoga postures, and it's the best studied approach to cultivating mindfulness.
The goal is to see when the mind is "spinning and worrying" and develop ways to find calm instead, Pinkerton said.
She added that studies of gender and mindfulness suggest that women benefit even more than men do -- "because the practice works on changing the habit of internalizing the response to stress."
According to Sood, mindfulness can be an inherent trait that some people have due to genes and life experiences. On the other hand, she said, it can also be learned.
And that doesn't have to involve investing in an expensive course.
"You can start simply by just becoming aware of whether your mind tends to run away in times of stress," Sood said. "This awareness is available to all of us."
Pinkerton agreed that simple steps -- like learning breathing exercises online or in a class -- can be powerful.
Sood pointed to the bigger picture: Menopause happens at a time when women often feel the pull of various stressors -- kids growing up and leaving home, caring for elderly parents and work pressure, to name a few.
"They're not only dealing with menopause symptoms," Sood noted. Mindfulness, she said, can be part of a "more holistic" approach to managing all of those issues.
The study findings were published Jan. 17 in the journal Climacteric.
The U.S. Office on Women's Health has more on menopause symptoms.