Trends: Let’s address PMS | Metro Newspaper UK
■ What used to be seen as a dirty secret or a subject for sexist jokes is finally being recognised for its serious impact on women’s health
THERE’S a five-day stretch every month during which I must think carefully about what I am doing and who I’m doing it with. Anything from shared sandwiches during lunchbreak to 48-hour hen parties have the potential to make me a) pick a fight b) burst into tears or c) fantasise about running away to a remote island with only my duvet for company.
I become ‘difficult’ and my feelings are hard to control. Emotionally I’m a loose cannon. I am, of course, ‘hormonal’, awash with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
This is what I have spent years telling myself, ashamed and irritable in equal measure, and while it feels isolating, I’m certainly not alone.
Although it is widely reported that an estimated 90 per cent of women have symptoms of PMS — which range from the physical (bloating or headaches), to mental (anxiety, anger or clumsiness) — remarkably, researchers conduct five times as many studies into erectile dysfunction, which affects less than one in five men (19 per cent), according to medical studies sharing site ResearchGate.
The site also reports that few grants are awarded for studies into PMS (which has more than 150 reported symptoms) despite the fact that, according to State University of New York research, more than 40 per cent of women who suffer from it do not respond to available treatments.
Indeed, five to eight per cent of women experience a severe form of PMS called Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) which is so life-affecting that, according to Harvard University, an estimated 15 per cent of sufferers attempt suicide. Other young women seek out hysterectomies in a desperate bid to be free of the condition.
Until recently though, matters such as PMS were a dirty secret or, at best, the butt of sexist jokes.
Despite the gravity of the condition, the cause of PMS is still unknown — possibly because women’s health problems have been historically chronically under-researched by the medical establishment.
But women’s health is finally beginning to be given centre stage, thanks to advances in technology (apps like Clue track women’s cycles, and home hormone testing kits are widely available) and a new openness of women to talk about health in the public domain.
One person hoping to start a conversation about the role hormones play in our lives is Eleanor Morgan, who explores the effect hormones have on mental health in her new book Hormonal.
Morgan argues that menstruation, childbirth and infertility ‘affect women’s mental health in so many unignorable ways’. This is, she says, the book she always wanted to read. It starts with the author recounting her first period — which arrived on a crazy golf course and was marked by a visceral pain which transcended the physical.
Pain is at the core of Morgan’s book. She notes that there isn’t parity within the medical establishment when it comes to men and women’s health — women are given fewer painkillers than men when they present in hospital and are often offered sedatives instead.
It is galling to read how often women’s pain is dismissed. But it is the mental anguish caused (in part) by hormones that is the essence of Morgan’s work. Anyone who suffers from PMS will find the relatability has you almost levitating with relief.
For Morgan, one of the best things to come out of writing Hormonal is the knowledge that low mood, anger, weepiness, anxiety or any of the other mental peaks and troughs women go through is not ‘just my hormones’, a refrain uttered by countless women.
‘Knowing that hormones are only part of the picture in relation to women’s mental health at varying times of the month has been so empowering,’ she says. Anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders can be caused by all sorts of other factors, including childhood trauma and chronic physical illness.
‘It’s impossible to say whether fluctuating hormones are directly causing anxiety or depression,’ she says. ‘However we’re feeling, it could never be true that it’s just hormone spikes. That is scientifically incorrect.’
Morgan’s periods have always been ‘bad’. She has been investigated for endometriosis and her PMS is characterised by feeling anxious, needy and fearful of everyone in her life abandoning her.
‘I feel that, too,’ I say. The lack of control and anger which I put down to PMS is frightening. This pressure to suppress what we feel, making light of dark thoughts and playing at being happy comes up a lot in Hormonal.
‘We aren’t designed to be happy all the time and yet that’s what we are taught,’ says Morgan. She describes fluctuating hormones as truth serum. What is our voice telling us? Are we right to just dismiss it? When our hormones spike maybe this drops the filter and we are our true selves?
The idea might be shocking but there is comfort in truth, in just being. Next time I pick a teary fight over a BLT I’m not going to say it’s because I’m hormonal. That’s only part of a much bigger picture that I’m only just starting to see.
■ Hormonal by Eleanor Morgan is published by Virago