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Seeing Red – thinking about PMS


I got up this morning and, once I’d navigated the stairs through my head-fog and taken two paracetamol for tummy ache, I promptly dropped a whole pack of Rice Krispies on the floor. As I turned around, I knocked a carton of milk off the kitchen counter. Then the tears came. Then the shouting. Then the guilt when the whole house woke at six thirty on a Sunday.

Hangover, maybe? Anxiety? Depression, anyone? No. It’s Pre menstrual Syndrome. PMS.

I’m 51 next month and hopefully hurtling towards the menopause. I’ve been having periods since I was 11 and, taking off my pregnancies when I was PMSless, that’s 444 times in my life I have felt like this.

The majority of women of childbearing age have menstrual cycles of approximately 28 days. Up to 85% of women report changes in physiological and psychological symptoms for approximately one week immediately before menstruation. For 10% of these women, PMS seriously disrupts their everyday life. This means that 2 million, or 5% of women’s lives are seriously disrupted every three weeks.

My own symptoms have included severe pain and mood change and, along with many other women, I found PMS disrupted my life to a major extent. The worst aspect of PMS is that once I have fought through the denial and ‘admitted’ to it, any passion, anger or annoyance you express is channeled as ‘special lady time’, ‘pre-meditated tantrum’ or ‘hormones’ instead of my informed opinion, which I am expressing a little more loudly than I do at other times because I am feeling emotional.

Since I was a teenager I’ve tried every prescription and over the counter remedy there is for PMS, including knocking myself out with codeine-based PMS ‘cures’ to the point of near-addiction and taking prescribed artificially produced hormones in huge doses. None of these ‘cures’ have worked because, unbelievably, no one knows what actually causes PMS and therefore there is no cure for it. I’m a health psychologist and as well as documenting my own experiences, I’ve been listening to women tell me about their symptoms for years. Yet, according to medical science, PMS is still a contested condition.

One reaction I get to this news (particularly from those women and men who don’t have PMS) is that it’s rubbish and that ‘it’s hormones that cause it’. This is probably correct, as it’s connected to the menstrual and reproductive cycle, but until someone presents me with a definitive map of exactly which hormones ‘cause’ it, which parts of the body and ultimately the brain are affected by these hormones, then I am afraid that we can’t treat it effectively. But, even though 5% of women’s lives are seriously disrupted every three weeks, it has not been researched. Can you imagine what would happen if 85% of men were affected by something, 5% of their lives seriously disrupted?

As a consequence of no one knowing what causes PMS, there is no effective medical way to treat it. If you can get your GP to believe that you have PMS in the first place, then there is little she can do for you. Really.

As I’m interested in the psychological side of health, I’ve been looking at ways to understand my PMS better. One way of looking at it is away from a cure, and towards PMS being a part of life and making space for it. After all, 85% of women report symptoms. It’s a natural part of our reproductive system and in order to live with my PMS – it’s not going to magically go away – I try to organise my life in a way that helps me to take care of myself around sensitive times, in ways that suit me. I make the world work for me for a change. Maybe that’s a positive aspect of PMS, to allow women to be who they are without being restricted by ‘normal behaviour’, whatever that is. Women don’t need a pill or potion for PMS; they need the freedom to organise their lives in the way they best see fit.

My partner understands and now, when I’m crying at puppies and kittens song I’ve heard a thousand time and complaining loudly about the neighbours, and being extremely clumsy, he takes over (or works on his van!). He understands, because we’ve talked about it. He understands that it’s not personal, but it IS a magnification of valid issues I have expressed at a time when I feel emotional, that I’m not just ‘playing up’ or ‘being difficult’.

I’ve only got to ask the rest of the world understand now. And clean up the huge serving of Rice Krispies all over the kitchen floor.

About Jacqueline Christodoulou Ward

I’m a psychologist, scientist, mother of three, lover, artist, grandmother of four, writer.

6 comments on “Seeing Red – thinking about PMS

  1. Stella
    September 5, 2012

    “The worst aspect of PMS is that once I have fought through the denial and ‘admitted’ to it, any passion, anger or annoyance you express is channeled as ‘special lady time’, ‘pre-meditated tantrum’ or ‘hormones’ instead of my informed opinion, which I am expressing a little more loudly than I do at other times because I am feeling emotional.”

    Absolutely identify with this. SO frustrating.

    • Keris
      September 5, 2012

      I identify with this too. But I also know that I sometimes do behave irrationally at that time of the month. For instance, I genuinely don’t want a divorce most of the time, but with PMS I used to (until I realised what was causing it) think it was the only option. Seriously. Thank god I worked out what it was before I actually went through with it. Jeez.

  2. Jacqueline Christodoulou
    September 5, 2012

    Thanks for the comments.
    Stella – I think that at one time I found the stereotyping and name calling so difficult that I began to believe that I was actually ‘just hormonal’ and that catch all meant that nothing I said the week before my period could be valid. I began to internalize other people’s cruelty towards what they didn’t consider was their perfect fit of ‘woman’ or ‘me’ – and that’s real oppression at work.
    Keris – Yes! I also behave irrationally, with my responses to something that is sometimes hardly related blowing up into almost paranoia. It’s the awareness of it and the acceptance, that I personally have to work through every month, that I feel allows us to think about what is making us feel this way and react differently (for me that’s often sitting on my own in a quiet room!). The problem is, when it’s trivialized in a negative way, PMS gets lumped into one bundle of stereotypes and expectations and then that awareness slips into what other people ‘think’ we are experiencing.
    At one point in my life I was unable to choose what was best for me at that time (eg sit in a quiet room, disengage from a conversation) and that made me question who was in control of my life and how oppressed I was. So for me now, it’s more about making a space in my life for PMS with people around me who allow me to do that. After all, it’s part of a natural process and not some monster, isn’t it?
    Someone did once tried to tell me that PMS was like giving up smoking – that the hormone withdrawal was like nicotine withdrawal! What they failed to understand was that PMS is not voluntary and smoking is – even as an addiction nicotine can be stopped eventually if one chooses to – and that you don’t give up smoking every three weeks and have to suffer the consequences with no way to stop or change the physical aspect of it.

    • Keris
      September 6, 2012

      Yes, exactly. When I wrote the article for the Mail, someone wrote something along the lines of “See, she admits she’s making it all up!” which, obviously, wasn’t what I “admitted” at all. Sigh.

  3. Clare
    October 16, 2012

    I am 38 and have suffered with severe PMS and period pains since 12 years old. My symptoms are sleeplessness, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and negativity, clumsiness, lethargy and oddly, excessive hunger and an increased sense of smell. These symptoms are like clockwork, appearing in ‘week 3’, and vanishing on day 1 of my period. It can destroy relationships and your career and leave you feeling hopeless when you’ve screwed up again because of an inability to judge situations and react constructively to difficulties. It has made me so unhappy and ashamed over the years, particularly when I was young and had no coping strategies at all. GPs simply have no knowledge or tools to deal with this problem. I have tried numerous contraceptive pills, but they either have no impact or worsen symptoms.

    In recent years I have manged to lessen the impact slightly, but only by avoiding social situations and sensitive work situations where possible in the dreaded ‘week 3’. My partner knows and is very understanding about it, and willing to work around it too. I also take supplements containing Omega 3, 6 and 9, and think this may be helping, although I’m not 100% convinced. I also try as much as possible to reduce stress levels throughout the month, and eat healthily.

    What I hate is the Catch 22 you find yourself in – you can’t admit this problem to anyone other than those you truly trust, because it can be so easily used against you (especially at work). You’re essentially admitting to being unbalanced, which will undermine credibility in you – so women understandably keep it to themselves, which means that it doesn’t get addressed and advice is so hard to find. There must be a way to deal with PMS – and you’re right, determining the cause seems like an obvious place to start. Does anyone know if this is being researched anywhere?

    • Jacqueline Christodoulou
      October 16, 2012

      Hi Clare, I’m really sorry to hear you are suffering like this. I fully sympathize with your description of PMS as a Catch 22 where you can’t talk about it for fear of being judged. In fact, to make matters worse, there has recently been a suggestion that PMS be classified as a mental health issue; PMDD (premenstrual dysmorphic disorder) is already listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). There has, however, a been a large campaign to prevent this labeling of women’s natural cycles as mental illness, which would turn the clock back to Victorian times where any complaints about the reproductive cycle were labelled hysteria, and was blamed on the ‘floating womb’ (of course the removal of this ‘hysteria’ was and still is the hysterectomy). Today, however, there is much debate over the cause and treatment of PMS and PMDD and there are other suggestions that it is still a contested condition.

      While I am aware of some psychological research into the psychological effects of PMS on women’s lives, I don’t think there is much research into the physiological causes. There are many potential reasons for this including prioritizing funding (gender issue – women are expected to put up with their monthly cycle), difficulty for women to have time to participate in long term invasive study, lack of awareness of the true symptoms of PMS.

      What we know we are suffering every month is still a ‘contested condition’ and debated in the medical world. As I mentioned above, I still feel that there are cultural amplifications, where women are not ‘allowed’ this time to deal with PMS quietly, as we are expected to conform to gendered ‘traits’ such as caring, cooking, cleaning as well as working, mostly to other people’s schedules. What kind of world do we live in where women are made to feel guilt and shame about part of their natural menstrual cycle?

      I hope that you find some answers Clare, I can assure you that I am working and campaigning to get more research into PMS funded.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on September 5, 2012 by in Bea Feminist, Bea Healthy, Bea Inspired, Bea Spiritual, Bea Yourself and tagged , , .
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