Discussing emotions and the menstrual cycle can be tricky, as women continue to be shamed and dismissed for expressing our feelings, making it easier to ignore or delegitimise women’s experience. Experiencing emotional changes over the course of your menstrual cycle is completely normal.
Although the menstrual cycle is much more than just the premenstrual and menstrual phases, the emotional lows often experienced at these times can cause controversy because women are often dismissed as being “overly emotional”. Even today, talking about menstruation in connection with women’s emotions is heavily stigmatized. So, what gives?
From puberty through menopause, women have no choice but to deal with the biological reality of hormonal fluctuations, but all of us experience different emotions as life confronts us with various challenges. This happens not because you are a woman, but because you are human.
Crying is a natural response to various stimuli and life experiences and an important aspect of self-regulation. Emotional tears contain high levels of stress hormones, so by crying we can regulate how we feel and relieve a little stress. Like swearing, crying can also help with pain management.
We all sometimes feel sadness, anxiety, or irritation in response to important or seemingly trivial events, men included. Historically, however, men have been portrayed as the more rational sex while women have been thought of as overly sensitive and emotional. Although there are clearly differences between the sexes, how we interpret emotions has a large social component. Men’s emotional outbursts are often accepted, while women exhibiting similarly intense emotions may be labelled hysterical or psychotic. To paraphrase a popular tweet: the best marketing scheme in history is men getting away with calling women “more emotional”, because they’ve successfully rebranded anger as Not An Emotion.
“It must be that time of month” is a dismissive phrase used to write off whatever a woman is feeling. Although crying and mood swings are common luteal-phase symptoms, exacerbated in those of us who suffer from PMS, they do not manifest out of thin air. It is only by respecting our own experiences that we can engage, adapt, and keep growing. Suppressing or dismissing emotions may help you avoid an argument or an awkward moment, but only in the short term.
There is nothing wrong with having a good cry from time to time. But if you find yourself crying often or reacting more strongly than you’d like, this may be signalling a more serious underlying physical or mental health issue that bears looking into.
We have learned a lot about the human body over the centuries, but hormones still hold many mysteries. These are the body’s chemical messengers. They are produced in specialized cells, predominantly in the various glands of the endocrine system.
We have dozens of hormones interacting with each other to regulate practically every process in the body including growth and development, metabolism, the sleep-wake cycle, immune function, blood pressure, blood sugar, fluid retention, electrolyte balance, sex and reproductive function, and mood.
Although we now have a pretty good grasp of how sex hormones work, which has made it possible to produce reliable hormonal contraception, overcome fertility issues with IVF, and treat various conditions such as low libido, prostate cancer, and osteoporosis, even experienced scientists and medical professionals cannot with certainty say what is normal.
Honestly, there is no clear, simple answer. No single mechanism can explain mood symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle and there is a deplorable lack of research on the topic.
That being said, oestrogen and progesterone are the stars of the menstruation show, and both can affect the way you feel.
Oestrogen increases during the first half of the menstrual cycle, peaking rapidly and dropping sharply just before ovulation. Progesterone levels rise and fall in more of a bell curve over the course of the second half of the cycle. As these two hormones rise and fall to regulate the reproductive cycle, a woman’s emotional response to the world around her fluctuates.
Oestrogen is produced primarily by the ovaries and to a lesser extent by the adrenal glands and in fat cells. This hormone stimulates the development of the secondary sex characteristics that appear at puberty, such as changes in the breasts, hips, and distribution of body fat, and in the development and maintenance of the female reproductive system and menstrual cycle. Oestrogen is also important for maintaining bone health, cardiovascular health, and cognitive function.
Progesterone is also produced in the ovaries, specifically in the corpus luteum, which is what a follicle turns into once it has released an egg. Additionally, it is produced in the adrenal glands, and in the placenta if pregnancy occurs. Progesterone is considered a primary “pregnancy hormone” because it promotes gestation by conditioning the uterine lining to receive an egg and by facilitating implantation. If pregnancy does not occur the uterine lining is discarded, and progesterone levels drop. If a fertilized egg does implant successfully, progesterone levels continue to rise to support the pregnancy.
We know, for example, that oestrogen levels vary widely for each woman over the course of her menstrual cycle, but there are also significant variations between women at the same point in their cycles. We can measure hormone levels precisely at a given moment, however this information does not help predict emotional sensitivity even though hormones are clearly involved.
Many women with PMS or PMDD have “normal” oestrogen levels, so the problem may lie in how the hormone interacts with other processes in the body. Some women experience mood swings and powerful emotions when they have high levels of oestrogen, but many women find their emotions stabilize in menopause when oestrogen levels are low. Some women experience depression, irritability, or anxiety as progesterone levels rise, while others feel more unstable as they experience “progesterone withdrawal”. Postpartum, perimenopausal, and postmenopausal depression are all conditions that affect women only, indicating that sex hormones play a significant role.
In addition to these hormonal changes, the physical discomfort of cramps, bloating, and headaches also contribute to a woman’s emotional load during menstruation. Who can be at their best when dealing with abdominal pain, fatigue, and potential blood seepage?
Our emotions are also directly affected by how we interact with others. Do you engage in social activities and have trusted friends to confide in? Do you feel safe? Managing social interactions, especially when period symptoms are severe, can sometimes be isolating and stress-inducing. Why did I wear these pants? Can I go swimming on my period? Who can I ask to loan me a tampon?
Women who lack safe, affordable access to period products experience what is now known as period poverty. This makes dealing with menstruation very difficult and even dehumanizing. If getting your period means missing work or school, you are bound to feel stressed, anxious, and unhappy.
It turns out that our sex hormones also influence our “happiness hormones”—neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which helps regulate mood, sleep, and appetite, dopamine, which gives us feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as a reward for achievement, endorphins, which alleviate pain and boost pleasure, and GABA, which relaxes nerve activity and regulates mood.
The ways in which these chemicals interact are complex and not fully understood, but for some women fluctuating oestrogen and progesterone can negatively influence some neurotransmitter. Also, mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, chronic fatigue syndrome, or eating disorders will have neurotransmitter involvement and can be exacerbated by the fluctuation of our sex hormones during the menstrual cycle.
Emotional changes associated with menstruation do not necessarily indicate a problem. Many women experience some moodiness or emotional sensitivity that does not significantly impact their lives. Even so, our emotions reflect our overall health, so anything we do to support a healthy lifestyle will also make us feel better emotionally.
Start by attending to your needs and adapting to the reality of where you are in your cycle as much as life allows. Are you getting enough sleep? Do you exercise, stretch your body, and spend some time outside on a regular basis? Are you eating a varied, nutritious diet and drinking plenty of fluids?
If none of these basic self-care activities do enough to relieve your symptoms, or if your symptoms are interfering with your ability to practice basic self-care, there is probably something more going on.
If you experience persistent emotional dysregulation that interferes with your quality of life, consult a healthcare provider. Any given woman likely has several things going on that affect her mood, so different people will respond to different treatments and doctors can have different opinions. Potential treatments include hormonal medications, antidepressants, cognitive behavioural therapy, antihistamines, dietary supplements such as B6, D, magnesium, or iodine, reflexology, acupuncture, and others. However, successful treatment depends on proper diagnosis, so you will need the help of a medical professional to narrow down the possibilities and find what works for you.
In the past, women suffering from severe emotional dysregulation were diagnosed with hysteria and could be locked away because no one understood the cause of their suffering. Even today, healthcare providers sometimes dismiss women’s complaints when they could be addressed. Although PMS symptoms can present in many ways, distress is not normal or acceptable.
Severe symptoms in the premenstrual and menstrual, such as deeply depressive thoughts, severe anxiety and irritability, fatigue and insomnia, binge eating and other issues, can be indicative of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, or PMDD, which affects roughly 3-8% women worldwide.
If you experience any of the symptoms described in this article, consult a healthcare provider who can help you explore treatment options to manage your symptoms and improve your overall well-being.
Download WomanLog now: