Updated: Oct 16, 2018
For some reason, periods and everything related are still a relatively taboo issue. This absolutely baffles me. How can we shy away from discussing a topic that affects so many? Even at school, I think I genuinely only had about half a dozen lessons discussing the topic. And when I say ‘the topic’, I say that very loosely. My experience of menstrual-cycle based education during my school years, consisted of the very basics; what a period is and how to use tampons and pads. Now I think I can vouch for a lot of women when I say the word cycle is used for a reason – the experience is ongoing and not simply restricted to days when you’re physically bleeding (yes I just used the word bleeding, get over it). So why are we only ever taught about those 3-8 days of the month? Why are we expected to self-navigate through the rest of it? PMS, period-related disorders, ovulation and fertility, birth control, cervical-cancer screening, menopause? Women in the UK are being short-changed when it comes to learning about their bodies and I think we need to start a conversation. I’m going to lead by example and tell you about my experience of PMS and the coping mechanisms I use to try and deal with it.
According to the NHS, “nearly all women of childbearing age have some premenstrual symptoms” – these symptoms are the indicators your body gives you to let you know that your period is on the way. Even doctors don’t know exactly what causes PMS, but it’s widely believed to be connected to fluctuating hormone levels throughout the cycle. Specific symptoms, frequency and severity of symptoms differs from woman to woman and it’s really important to familiarise yourself with your personal experience of PMS, in order to better understand and control what you’re going through. For me, PMS manifests itself in the form of 5 very specific symptoms and every month without fail I experience PMS in some combination or form;
• Bloating - during the luteal phase (second part) of my cycle means my weight varies between half a stone every month. As someone who continually struggles with body image and weight acceptance, this really affects my self-confidence. I know full well that spending half my cycle paranoid about my weight isn’t good for my physical or mental health and yet every month it happens again.
• Spots - As someone who usually has reasonably clear skin, towards the end of my cycle when my hormones manifest themselves on my face, it really bothers me. Nobody likes dealing with spots and the information on how to get rid of them is so mixed and conflicting that I just give up completely. Feeling fed-up and unhappy in my own skin really makes me feel insecure and teaming this with my loss of confidence from bloating, I turn into a hot mess.
• Sore boobs - The word sore really doesn’t do the experience justice to be completely honest. By sore I mean achy, red-hot, rock-solid, painful to touch, painful to move, sensitive, do-not-try-to-touch-or-hug-me-because-I-will-scream-or-punch-you level of discomfort. Sometimes, for days on end, I struggle to even find a comfortable sleeping position because my boobs are that sore and lack of sleep in turn, has an effect on my emotional wellbeing.
• Tiredness – By tired I mean the sluggish and lethargic feeling I’m left with following a day of other physical traits of PMS. I’m sure any woman would agree that constantly feeling uncomfortable and in-pain throughout the day really takes its toll and drains all your energy. My concentration is affected throughout the day too and by the end of it, sleeping seems like the only answer.
• Anxiety – This is by far my most debilitating symptom. For me, PMS is like chain reaction, with the physical symptoms sparking the emotional ones. Worry, self-doubt, lack of motivation, overthinking, low-mood, lack of enjoyment, self-sabotage. You name it… anxiety does strange things to you and turns you into a shell. When my anxiety is going full speed ahead, I really do struggle to get on with daily life and function normally. It even affects me doing the things I enjoy most which can be really isolating.
My symptoms tend to last for about 10 days starting a week before my period and beginning to dissipate midway through. Now, to put this into perspective; I have a 26 day cycle and 10 of these days are spent suffering with PMS – this works out as roughly 140 days or 38% of the year on average. If I carry on having periods until I’m 50, it averages to just over 14 years of my life potentially being spent suffering with PMS. Pretty bleak when I put it like that isn’t it. This is exactly why it’s so important to know yourself, your triggers and your cycle; so you’re not blindly suffering for that amount of time. Every woman is different and every one of her cycles is different; this is why we should be talking about this more. To know that we’re not alone. Why are we all suffering in silence?
Dealing with PMS is something that I really struggle with but I do have a few things I do to try and make it easier for myself;
• Track you period – I could not recommend anything more! I’ve been using a period tracker app for almost two years now and it’s incredibly helpful for lots of different many things. It not only tracks the length of your cycle and period but also; can predict when you ovulate and are most fertile; allows you to track emotions, pain, sex, skin, cravings, energy, and sleep; and helps you track your birth control. If you want to become more in tune with yourself and you cycle, download an app and get started. (I use ‘Clue’).
• Journaling – Again, if you want a visual representation and calendar of all your feelings and when you’re feeling them; this is for you. I’ve journal-ed previously and I can’t highlight its therapeutic and motivational abilities enough. For me, writing my feelings down on paper really helped in addressing and accepting them. It’s also amazing to look back as it serves of a reminder of how far you’ve come and everything you’ve gone through emotionally.
• Comfy clothes – Invest in some good comfy clothing to wear when you’re feeling rubbish. Leggings, joggers, hoodies, pyjamas – whatever makes you feel comfortable and less restricted. There’s nothing I hate more than attempting to squeeze into my jeans when I’m bloated. Sports bras are also extremely helpful when you’ve got sore boobs! They’re even comfy to sleep in when you need extra support to help the pain.
• Self-care behaviour – Practise self-healing. Experiment and find the behaviours that make you feel better. Run yourself a bath, watch a film and eat chocolate, go to the gym, get some fresh air, make yourself a cuppa and have a nap. Whatever it is that lifts your spirits, do it. It’s okay to be indulgent and put yourself first. Don’t burn yourself out. It’s so important to find the self-care remedies that work for you, to fall back on during your PMS time.
• Be honest – First and foremost, be honest with yourself if you are struggling. Addressing the fact that you’re not feeling 100%, will do you good. Speak to other people. Your family, your friends, your boss, your colleagues. Yes, it may seem like an uncomfortable issue to discuss but the only way to normalise it, is by discussing it and forcing the people around you to understand it.
• Indulge in your emotions – If you need to cry it out, then cry it out. Sometimes you don’t necessarily need to make yourself feel better, you just need to experience what you are feeling. Always remember that PMS passes and if you want to be sad for a week, then go ahead and be sad. It’s not a sign of weakness to accept that the best way to get through something is by letting it run its course. Some months will be better than others so hold out hope that no negative feeling lasts forever.
• Speak to your doctor – No woman should have to suffer with bad PMS. Go and ask your doctor and explain your specific symptoms – they can come up with a plan of action tailored to you. Your GP will always have the most accurate and helpful advice. They’re also the best people to talk to as they can assess whether you actually have an underlying period-related condition making PMS worse. (It’s worth noting that there’s a condition called PMDD which is an extreme form of PMS – information here).
As women, we need to team up and learn together. Why, when we’re all experiencing similar things, are we shying away from talking about them? The only way we can get rid of the embarrassment around the topic is by talking about it more and educating ourselves. Let’s break this taboo together, shall we?