I’m just going to dive straight in to it: I’d describe my life-long experience of my menstrual cycle as a rollercoaster ride. When I was younger, in my teens and early twenties, I often had hormonally-driven free-falls. I felt completely out of control, often. I rarely got my period, frequently had intense hormonal waves, and none of the many doctors I saw could identify a cause, problem (other than emotional impact) or solution. It affected my life greatly, in many ways. Sweet story: I first realised my now-husband was ‘my guy’ when – six months in to our relationship – he wordlessly peeled off his t-shirt to give to me after I’d declared that he smelled good and that I’d like to wear it (the t-shirt) amidst a tearful mood swing. I still have the shirt, it’s my favourite possession on earth, and it feels like a warm day-long cuddle whenever I wear it.
Since becoming a mother of three, my cycle has changed quite drastically, and multiple times. I have also learned a great deal about myself, my needs and my physiology as the years have gone by. I think the most significant lesson of all is that your menstrual cycle doesn’t have to be a burden that is endured. There is wisdom that can change your perspective, and your experience. As a mother of daughters, I am looking forward to passing it on. If anything that I have painfully learned can benefit you, I hope it does.
A cycle of nature that’s happening within our bodies.
You may have heard that there is synchronicity between women’s menstrual cycles and the cycles of the moon. I’m not going to proclaim this as either myth or fact. What I do want to do, is suggest that you consider living in harmony with your cycle. If you pay attention, you will notice that there are times where you naturally (and predictably) have more energy, for example. Embrace this, it will be your superpower.
In many ways, and for many reasons, women are taught that our bodies are shameful. Or we simply aren’t taught enough about these very important things about our bodies. A great deal of the conventional practices that we fall into are harmful (at worst) or disempowering (at best). It doesn’t have to be this way. Did you know that the Cherokee view menstruating women as sacred and powerful, while other Native American tribes believed women were spiritually powerful during menstruation and would call on them for insight and guidance?
Personally speaking, I am intrigued by the ancient wisdom of the menstrual cycle. I’m interested in the idea of red tents or moon lodges, and I also know of an increasing number of women who are having simple, private ceremonies where they return their menstrual blood to the earth. If you’re like me, you might want to do some further reading on these.
Anxiety as a symptom.
Your hormones affect your menstrual cycle, as well as how you feel. Anxiety is a common symptom of PMS (a little bit of anxiety is normal, while crippling anxiety might be a symptom of PMDD).
For some general background: 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 particularly difficult thing about anxiety is that it can make it hard to distinguish between the things that you should be fearful of and your 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 minimise its impact and ride it out (aka you’re less likely to get ‘sucked in’). To put it a different way, it won’t eliminate the anxiety but it might make your experience better. Try telling yourself: “This is just anxiety and it probably means that I’m going to get my period soon”.
*PMS symptoms vary from woman to woman and can change month to month (more on this later).
Do you track your spending? If so, it might be interesting to compare this with your menstrual cycle. I find that, for me, the luteal phase often coincides with emotional spending.
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). If you’ve ever beat yourself up about a (unnecessary) big purchase, take some time to think about how this choice might have been impacted by the intense emotions that accompany certain parts of your cycle. I have found awareness of this to be helpful in regards to managing my spending habits, as well as increasing my self compassion when I sometimes make less than ideal choices.
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. The types of foods that you eat and how much exercise you get can have an impact on premenstrual bloating, however it won’t ever get rid of it entirely. You can improve your experience of it, however, by having clothes that make you feel good and comfortable during this phase.
It might be helpful to try and reframe your perspective of this particular aspect of your cycle, and see it as a result of your femininity. Food for thought: do you think the beautiful women with full bellies depicted in renaissance paintings felt the same distress as modern women do about bloating? It takes work to accept that your body will regularly change in a way that is often portrayed as undesirable (body image and the impact of media on women’s bodies is a whole separate conversation). Having a hard time with the uncomfortable experience of not fitting into your clothes is one thing that you have the power to fix.
Changes after baby.
It is a very under discussed phenomenon, but pregnancy often shifts your menstrual cycle – for better or worse. 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. You may also find that your periods become more or less regular. If you find that your period becomes heavier or more painful after having a baby, this will often improve with time.
It’s possible to develop Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) after childbirth which, along with the potential for other PMS symptom changes, is useful to know as understanding an issue is the first step to being able to manage it. If your premenstrual symptoms are severe, do some research on PMDD and check in with your doctor because there are likely ways that they can help you.
Period apps and the value of predictability.
I’m probably a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve recently found that tracking my cycle can be eye-opening. You can do it the old school way and make notes on your calendar, or you can use an app to track your period and symptoms throughout the month. Clue is one option but there are lots of others out there.
It can be really helpful to be able to predict things that might be difficult. It means that you can prepare for them and it helps to keep emotional responses in check. I’ve noticed that I often feel like my marriage is imploding at a certain point every month. I found this pretty traumatising until I realised that it happens to many other women too. Linking it to my cycle (as opposed to thinking it is a symptom of a doomed union) has helped me not to dwell on it. This also leads to…
Talking about it.
Talk to your partner about your menstrual cycle! They may or may not be a big fan of the conversation, but with time they’ll likely recognise that it benefits them as well as you. It’s important for you both to know that there are temporary, biological reasons for the way you’re feeling or behaving. Clearly, this doesn’t give you license to act however you want, but it’s a helpful reminder for your partner that they shouldn’t read too much into some things or take them personally. It also clues them in that you’re entering the time where an extra cuddle will go a long way.
Menstrual cups and period pants.
Menstrual cups and period pants are trending now, and for good reason. The difference that it makes to your comfort level is huge (tampons are drying and so uncomfortable, as well as PH-distrupting), to say nothing of the long-term financial and environmental benefits of using a reusable option. The idea of switching to a menstrual cup or period pants might seem overwhelming at first but we think you’ll get the hang of it pretty easily – and when there is so much to be gained it seems a tad silly not to try. I like Bettercup and Modibodi.
*The beautiful imagery was borrowed with gratitude from @soulart.klerks, @cupofjo and @_bettercup (in order of appearance).
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like this post on 5 wellbeing-related lessons from my thirty trips around the sun.