From Instagram removing images containing visible menstrual blood to movies portraying periods as frightening and traumatic, menstruation is still a controversial topic. And given that periods have been happening for, well, forever, it’s alarming that there are still so many misconceptions around what the menstrual cycle actually is and the impact it has on people who experience it.
It’s not just sitcoms and TV shows that get periods all wrong, either. When Megan Kelly questioned then-Republican nominee Donald Trump on his comments about women on Fox News, he later complained that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”. When it comes to periods, stereotypes are rampant.
In stark contrast to these stereotypes, a 2012 study showed that there is, in fact, no common correlation between the menstrual cycle and mood. By examining over 40 separate studies, the study found that approximately 40% of people who menstruate reported no association between mood and menstrual cycle, 40% reported negative mood during both the premenstrual and menstrual phase, and only 15% reported increased negative mood premenstrually. For most people who menstruate the stereotypes are a lot worse than the reality.
The results of this study have caused many feminists to reject PMS outright. If you’ve ever had a period, you’ll know how infuriating it is to have someone reduce your emotions down to it being ‘that time of the month’. It’s an awful excuse that’s used to invalidate women’s emotions and opinions and frame them as irrational. There’s no truth to these clichés. However, for a small percentage of people who menstruate, ‘that time of the month’ can mean a lack of control—over our emotions, our bodies and our hormones. Recognising these changes can be a validating and empowering experience for people who menstruate. We don’t have to reject our bodies, we can accept them and learn to understand the unique ways they affect us individually.
When my doctor first mentioned that I may have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), I had never heard of it before. When she later explained what it was, I felt as though the puzzle pieces of my life clicked into place. PMDD is an extreme version of PMS that affects 3-8% of people who menstruate. During each menstrual cycle, people with PMDD experience severe bouts of depression, feelings of worthlessness and even suicidal thoughts.
I have an irregular period—exacerbated by my IUD—and often experience the depressive symptoms associated with PMDD. During these phases, usually between three to nine days long, I feel totally unlike my usual self. I am hopeless. I feel worthless. I overeat and am prone to long bouts of weepiness. I fit every bad PMS stereotype, but I never attributed those feelings to my hormones. Everything felt too real, too close to home and too permanent. And when I did make the connection, I thought it was just a normal part of menstruation. Isn’t that just what PMS does to you?
Society doesn’t have a clear picture of what PMS is. For centuries, women’s emotions were boiled down to hysteria, the wandering womb, or even demonic possession. Today there’s so much conflicting research (and let’s face it, conflicting political interest) around PMS it’s hard to clarify exactly what it is.
The taboos around menstruation don’t help. With few avenues to discuss the disorder in everyday life, many PMDD sufferers use online forums to discuss their diagnosis, symptoms and treatment. Spencer is a young trans man who was diagnosed with PMDD when he was 17. He was prescribed a high dose of Prozac to treat his symptoms and found that medication was the only way to handle his mood during the pre-menstrual phase of his cycle.
“My physical symptoms are probably average,” he wrote, “but the moods are awful and when I tried to wean myself off Prozac at one point it was a disaster … my class attendance slipped greatly, I attempted suicide and my eating and sleeping habits became really unhealthy. For me, PMDD also brings up urges to binge eat and increased gender dysphoria.”
For people like Spencer, getting treatment for PMDD is crucial. Some people describe feeling trapped on ‘an emotional rollercoaster’. Days of feeling content are littered with bouts of depression that are so temporary, they almost feel illegitimate. It can leave people feeling out of control.
Severe PMS, or PMDD, is a rare occurrence. But pervasive stereotypes have everyone thinking that it’s the norm. If society continues to perpetuate the idea that people who menstruate are hormonal messes during their ‘time of the month’, we won’t think to seek the appropriate treatment when we do feel that way.
Menstrual cycles are subjective experiences. Everyone’s experiences are unique, and understanding our own cycles can be difficult. Apps like Clue help people (and yes, it doesn’t use gendered pronouns) track their periods and symptoms, which can help provide some clarity. Connecting with our cycle can be an empowering experience. It doesn’t mean we’re crazy or irrational or overly-emotional. It means we’re human.
With some outside perspective (and daily mood tracking) I realised that my periods of depression were brief and relatively predictable. By understanding why I felt the way I did, I was able to better prepare myself for when I would inevitably feel low. Managing regular life stresses also helped reduce symptoms. Sometimes I feel like a bad feminist for letting my hormones get the better of me, but I also know that it’s okay to listen to and accept my body. And I know that PMDD doesn’t have to be something that holds me back.
Negative moods during the premenstrual phase are not part and parcel of having a uterus. If you experience severe PMS symptoms, you can seek help. Counselling, medication and even healthy self-expression and strong empathetic relationships can help you manage PMS or PMDD symptoms.
Yes, ‘that time of the month’ could be making you depressed. But don’t believe the stereotypes—premenstrual moodiness can be managed. We can’t let taboos stop us from understanding our bodies and emotions.