By Kela S. Roberts
It’s something you really can’t explain. Language, as useful as it might be, can’t really encapsulate the phantom feeling of strangeness that seems to come gradually and all at once. The sadness, the anxiety, the catastrophizing feeling, the rage, it seems like someone else is inside your body, someone else who you don’t know, and this person is having the worst time of their lives, while materially, nothing in particular might really be wrong. It builds and builds and everything feels like it’s crumbling, you’re holding yourself together with what feels like strings of civility while bubbles of irritation and restlessness randomly burst to the surface. Then,you see the little stain on your underwear, the blood, and it all seems to make sense, the torment.
It was your period. It’s a reassuring revelation, your life wasn’t necessarily falling apart, any more than it usually does anyway, it was just your body preparing for a purge, something natural. You get your pads, tampons or cups and you clean yourself up, and you sit with your seemingly irrational swirl of emotion, and you feel the inner voice scolding you. You get embarrassed, the pain you felt, the anxiety and sadness felt real, only for you to realize it wasn’t, you feel crazy, hysteric, like the cliche of a woman. There’s this pervasive belief within society, which is of course, as with many of our issues, is rooted in patriarchy, that women and menstruating people are, and have always been, a little ‘crazy’. Our emotions, our wants, the depths of our feeling and pain are trivialized as irrationality and folly, not real, silly and feminine. Even in movies and media when a woman might be expressing some kind of distress, irritation or sadness, characters might ask if she’s on her period, or if she’s ‘PMSing’.
It’s embarrassing to feel like you’re playing into that stereotype. But really, where does this inner shame come from?
Don’t we all know, as women and menstruating persons, the extent to which a period can cause you emotional and physical distress, don’t we all know the seriousness of regulating these sudden emotions and navigating body pain ? Each day, more than 300 million people are menstruating and will spend 3,500 days of their lives bleeding. Why then are the side effects, physical and mental, of this common and natural occurrence so overlooked, so stigmatized. This piece serves as a challenge to that embarrassment. For too long we have been made to trivialize the experience of menstruation and the mental and physical pain that comes with it. It’s time to shake that embarrassment.
So what exactly is menstrual health, and how does it overlap with mental health? Menstrual health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle. There are certain conditions that we commonly talk about, from chronic conditions such as Endometriosis and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome to more general and common conditions such as PMS, or Premenstrual syndrome, which involves many unique symptoms, including anxiety, depression, and body pains. There is also a less known but also highly severe counterpart to PMS known as PMDD, which is a condition similar to PMS that also happens in the week or two before your period starts as hormone levels begin to fall after ovulation. PMDD causes more severe symptoms than PMS, including severe depression, irritability, and tension. PMDD affects up to 5% of women of childbearing age.
To have menstrual health, women, girls and people who menstruate should have access to accurate, timely, age-appropriate information about the menstrual cycle, menstruation, and changes experienced throughout the life-course, as well as related self-care and hygiene practices.This includes accessing and using effective and affordable menstrual materials and having supportive facilities and services, including water, sanitation and hygiene services,and access to timely diagnosis, treatment and care for menstrual cycle-related discomforts and disorders, including access to appropriate health services and resources, pain relief, and strategies for self-care
The thing is, when we have a culture around menstruation that minimizes menstrual pain, encourages shame around the entire topic and trivializes the emotional aspects of the hormonal menstrual cycle, we have a lot of people who suffer in silence. Menstrual pain for many is no joke, the aching, the nausea, the weakness, some people can’t even walk at times. The emotional toll of pain itself is often understated. It feels like your own body, the thing that’s supposed to hold you and protect you is now fighting against you. And yet, we are expected to work, take care of our families, socialize and continue on, and we do, but the strain can be too much at times. Add to this mix a slurry of hormonally induced emotions, and the self consciousness of appearing ‘too emotional, too feminine and irrational, a burden, and we have a cocktail for menstrual and mental fatigue. The depression you feel is not irrational, the anxiety you feel is not silly and being exhausted by pain does not make you weak.
Mentally speaking, and I am going to be frank here, periods are horrible for a lot of us, myself included. There have been many times where I would fight the most sickly feelings of anxiety and depression, fighting the pain, wondering what happened and what I did wrong and have to remind myself that it’s probably just my cycle, and many times it is. I know what it’s like having to censor yourself and swallow your pain both physically and mental and I know how isolating pain can feel. It is of course, something solitary, only you are within your body, and only you know the extent to which you may be suffering.
Living in a society where both mental health issues and women’s health issues are put on a constant low flame on a back burner can make getting proper help feel impossible, it can make what you’re going through feel like a life sentence. Go to a doctor and they might throw some birth control at you to shut you up, but really, that comes with its own issues and side effects, it definitely isn’t a cure all. The support you might need really isn’t there. Trust me, I know.
To whoever is reading this, if menstrual and mental health are a struggle for you, I want to say that though pain is icy and isolating you are not alone within this intersection. Reach out to your family, set reminders for when you know that your mood will be low to keep you grounded, spend time with friends, talk to your therapist if you have access to one. Until we have better resources to fight the stigma around both menstrual health and mental health, the best and most potent form of aid in my opinion is community.
To move forward we would need to reframe the entire conversation around women and people who menstruate monthly cycles. No longer must we trivialize and make a joke of the very real mental side effects that arise during menstruation, no longer must we trivialize our pain. Your irritability, and anxiety and sadness don’t make you a bitch, they don’t make you silly, that is the taunts of the patriarchy talking, a voice of lies and dismissiveness. Of course we owe it to ourselves to regulate our emotions for our sake and that of everyone around us but you are not silly for feeling the way you feel, for wanting to cry, for wanting to scream, be alone run or into the arms of someone else when the pain gets to be bad or when your mind feels dizzy with emotion.
You are human, you are real and human and you are often at the mercy of a biology that many of us don’t fully understand.
To create the spaces and policy needed to help future generations with their own menstrual and mental health we must first dismiss the dismissive voices within ourselves that tell us we are overreacting.
We must embrace the roughness of the menstrual cycle for what it is, and we must seek out and encourage others to get the help we might need.
Hennegan et al, Menstrual health: a definition for policy, practice, and research, Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters, Vol 29, 2021. “PMDD”. 2021. Womenshealth.Gov.
TitilayoA., AgunbiadeO., BanjoO., & LawaniA. (1). Menstrual discomfort and its influence on daily academic activities and psychosocial relationship among undergraduate female students in Nigeria. Tanzania Journal of Health Research, 11(4). https://doi.org/10.4314/thrb.v11i4.50173
Kela S. Roberts is an International Relations and History graduate. She is freelance writer and a member of the Feminitt Caribbean writing team, with a passion for understanding gender issues and furthering women’s liberation.