I’ve been thinking about periods a lot lately. At the ripe old age of thirty-three I finally feel like I understand my period and it’s impact on my body, which means that I’ve spent two decades (or thereabouts) as an ignorant hostage. I had a vague idea of where the more obvious PMS symptoms – like, hormonal mood swings – were coming from but I was nowhere informed enough to be comfortable, let alone empowered.
Throughout my teens and early twenties I had really irregular periods. As in, maybe once a year. I had semi-regular PMS symptoms but I rarely bled, or had the relief that comes with bleeding. After having my babies, my cycle changed; following Poppy and Lulah it mellowed to the point where I was virtually un-phased by it, while with Sybil it has become more challenging and dynamic than ever before. It’s because of this that I began thinking about my period, what it does to my body, and everything that I believe women and girls should know about their periods. The following are some of my more recent lessons, and are things which I don’t believe are as ‘common knowledge’ as they should be.
Anxiety as a symptom.
Anxiety is actually a common symptom of PMS (a little bit of anxiety is normal, while crippling anxiety might be a symptom of PMDD). I am painfully aware of just how difficult the experience of anxiety is. I’ve had to figure out a way to manage postnatal anxiety, and some of this learning I have been able to translate here.
Anxiety is a natural way that the body protects itself from danger, it’s part of the body’s ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. Elevated and sustained anxiety, however, isn’t normal. One particular way that I find anxiety difficult is because it can make it hard to distinguish between the things that I should be fearful of and my anxiety-rooted fears, the consequence being that it is easy to find yourself running on adrenaline and fearful of everything.
Feeling increasingly anxious a week or so before your period is due would suggest that you have premenstrual anxiety. Being able to acknowledge premenstrual anxiety as a temporary symptom can help you to ride it out. Try telling yourself: “This is just anxiety and it probably means that you’re going to get your period soon. You have anxiety and it won’t serve you to worry about this.” This is what I do and, while it won’t make the anxious feelings go away, it does help minimise their impact.
*PMS symptoms vary from woman to woman and can change month to month.
Stress can have an impact on your monthly cycle, including delaying or stopping it. Amenorrhea is the name for missed periods, and one of the causes is stress. Stress can alter the way your hypothalmus functions, and this can mean that your mentrual cycle regulating hormones decome disregulated. Your menstrual cycle can also make you more susceptible to stress. Stress can then, potentially, result in anxiety.
Stress is closely tied to anxiety, so much so that there are often mistaken for each other. I find it helpful to explain it in this way: anxiety is a response to something internal, while stress is a response to something external. Stress is influenced by lifestyle factors, such as individual circumstances and choices.
Personally, I recognise stress as feelings of overhwhelm, as well as irritability. I also find that I become disproportionately triggered (stressed-out) during certain times in my cycle by everyday things which otherwise wouldn’t phase me, or which I can find easy solutions to.
It dawned on me the other day, rather out of the blue, that I become an emotional (big) spender during the luteal phase of my cycle.
In case you don’t already know, the luteal phase is the latter part of the cycle, after ovulation and leading up until your period. The luteal phase is where hormones change and cause common premenstrual symptoms (mood changes, headaches, acne, bloating). A quick Google search will tell you that this isn’t a completely unexplored connection, however it’s one that I, personally, haven’t ever made before. I am – have been – aware that I am somewhat of an emotional shopper, but the understanding that it’s often in response to the intense emotions that accompany this part of my cycle is new and very interesting; it doesn’t absolve me of any responsibility but knowing that it’s caused by biological changes does help me to understand my behaviour, manage it better (because shopping/spending money doesn’t actually make these intense emotions any less intense), and also feel less guilty about it when I do emotionally spend.
Bloating and monthly fluctuations.
Bloating isn’t a comfortable feeling, nor is it fun for all of your clothes to feel restrictive and too tight. In my experience, there isn’t much that can be done about the presence of prementrual bloating. You can improve your expereince of it though, such as by having clothes that make you feel good and comfortable during this phase. It’s also totally normal to gain a couple of pounds when you’re getting your period, a lot of it is water weight and will go away in a few days.
I’ve also been trying to reframe my perspective of this particular aspect of my cycle and see it as a result of my femininity. I’ve thought about the women with beautiful, full bellies depicted in renaissance paintings and I’ve wondered, do you think that the women who lived during this period (no pun intended) felt the same distress as modern women do about bloating? Body image and the impact of media is a whole separate conversation but, in short, it (unsurpisingly) takes work to not find it difficult for your body to regularly change in a way that is often portrayed as undesireable. Admittedly, it is also reasonable to have a hard time with the uncomfortable experience of not fitting into your clothes, but this is something that you (likely) have the power to fix.
Changes after baby.
It wasn’t until after my third baby, and my cycle shifted in a negative way, that I really grasped how pregnancy can impact your period. My cycle became easier and more manageable after my first two and so I didn’t really think very deeply about it, beyond unexplored feelings of appreciation. Apparently, the changes following pregnancy can impact bleeding – like a heavier, longer or more painful flow – as well as the presence or intensity of premenstrual symptoms. The first period that I had after Sybil was born was heavy and incredibly painful, and I’ve experienced increased PMS symptoms with each subsequent period. Women can also develop Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) after childbirth which, along with the potential for other PMS symptom changes, is useful to know as understanding your issues is the first step to being able to manage them. If your prementstrual symtpoms are severe do some research on PMDD and check in with your doctor, as there are ways that they can help you.
I think I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but tracking my cycle has been eye-opening. I find that being able to predict things that might be difficult is helpful. It means that I can prepare for them, but also it helps me keep emotional responses in check. Once a month I decide that my marriage is imploding and that I’m an utter failure at life, which are two beliefs which have the potential to be pretty painful. Knowing where these feelings are coming from helps me to not dwell on them, as well as know when I might need a little bit of extra self-care and compassion. This also leads to my next point…
*Oh! I use Clue but there are so, so many options when it comes to period apps.
Talking about it.
I’ve started talking about my period, particularly with my husband. I’m not sure he’s a fan of this, if I’m honest, but I’m convinced (know) that it helps both of us to know that there are temporary, biological reasons for the way I’m feeling or behaving. Clearly, this doesn’t give me license to act however I want, but it’s a helpful reminder for him that he shouldn’t read too much into some things or take them personally. It also clues him in that we’re entering the time where an extra cuddle will go a long way.
Cups vs. tampons.
It took me far longer to switch from tampons to a mentrual cup than I wish it had, and I’m never going back! The difference it makes to my comfort levels is huge, to say nothing of the enormous environmental impact (+ the company where I bought my cup from work on a one-for-one model and donates a cup to a girl in need with every purchase! @_bettercup). The sizing choices were what put me off of ordering a cup years ago but @_bettercup has two clear, simple sizing options and it felt failproof. I’m really all about making what can be an uncomfortable experience just a bit more pleasant, and I’d highly, highly recommend you consider the option of using a cup.
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