PMS: a square peg in a round hole?

// 12 October 2011

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Women who have Pre Menstrual Syndrome are seriously affected by a patriarchal system that often trivialises PMS.

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. This is known as ‘pre menstrual syndrome’ or ‘pre menstrual tension’. 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.

These women are suffering major symptoms throughout their life, yet, incredibly, no one knows what causes PMS in medical terms. Whilst there has been some research into the social consequences for women and for feminism, there is scant medical research into what causes women to spend a quarter of their reproductive lives suffering.

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.

Can you imagine what would happen if 10% of the whole population, including men, started to suffer from something that made them highly distressed, in pain, and unable to work, for one week out of every month? Wouldn’t researchers be rushing to investigate and understand how to treat the sufferers in a fair and equal manner? Instead, women who suffer from PMS often face a bullying campaign. Would sufferers be told that they were making it up, that they were unreasonable, or constantly joked about, if the condition concerned masculinities?

I have suffered from severe PMS all my reproductive life. My symptoms have included severe pain and mood change and, along with many other women, I found PMS disrupted my life to a major extent. Novelist Keris Stainton sums up the extent of the disruption in her own life in this honest article; in my own experiences, the worst aspect of PMS is that once I have ‘admitted’ to it, any passion, anger or annoyance you express is channelled as ‘special lady time’, ‘pre-meditated tantrum’ or ‘hormones’ instead of my informed opinion.

Take the PMS Buddy, for example, which allows men to track women’s PMS for when ‘women in your life are closing in on ‘that time of the month’ – when things can get intense for what may seem like no reason at all’. No reason at all? In fact, my PMS identity merely allows me less censorship of my feelings and how I really want to live. So the ‘no reason at all’ is actually my opinion that I feel more like expressing at certain times of the month. Instead of being caught up in the normalising of my behaviour, which I have rehearsed in the patriarchal system since childhood, I accept PMS as part of my difference, my femininity. This doesn’t ‘cure’ it, but it stops me feeling guilty about no acting how other people think I ‘should’.

I spent ten years studying PMS and other often trivialised aspects of women’s health, and came to the conclusion that PMS can’t be cured, and anyone looking for a cure is not understanding the nature of PMS. And, if it’s a natural occurrence, why is PMS so demonised?

My self-care is the same as advice I would give to any women who suffers from PMS: take a look at the way your life is organised around patriarchal systems. In order to live with your PMS – it’s not going to magically go away – try to organise your life in a way that helps you to take care of yourself around sensitive times, in ways that suit you. Don’t try to hammer the square peg of women’s health into a pre-shaped misogynistic round hole, fight for the freedom to express your own identity. Make the world work for you for a change. 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.

Image by flickr user ruminatrix, shared under a Creative Commons license. It depicts graffiti on a wall reading “PMS”

Comments From You

Bo Novak // Posted 12 October 2011 at 11:42 pm

PMS is no joke and, as you rightly point out, is common and enduring. And made worse by the taboos and mockery surrounding it. And undoubtedly by discrimination too.

Lots of modern life aggravates PMS (stress, skipping meals, xeno-oestrogens in meat, plastics, household chemicals, the water supply etc)

There ARE ways to combat it however (without resorting to synthetic hormones).

While there is no magic bullet, raising serotonin levels and balancing hormones. Nutrition, exercise and self-care all play a part. I believe this includes understanding and respecting our natural monthly cycles – and bringing the subject into the open so we can deal with it in a woman-friendly way.

I blog about PMS and balancing hormones at

Jacqui Christodoulou // Posted 13 October 2011 at 10:02 am

Bo makes a good point – looking after yourself in physical terms of diet an exercise will improve overall health and raising of serotonin levels will help the symptoms of most conditions that impact on wellbeing.

When I mention in the article that there is no ‘cure’ for PMS I am alluding to the various remedies on the market that promise relief from PMS. These tend to work to different extents for some women and not for others, as does prescription medicine (mostly synthetic hormones) prescribed for PMS. I feel that many of these expensive products are results of the economic of supply and demand principle – a business opportunity for someone who sees desperate people looking for a ‘cure’ (for the natural rhythms of a womans’ life)

As someone who has tried almost everything, over the counter and prescribed, and even been offered a hysterectomy to ‘cure’ my PMS (hysteria), and have objectively researched women’s health professionally, I have found no product that ‘cures’ PMS.

Summer // Posted 13 October 2011 at 11:12 am

Can you imagine what would happen if 10% of the whole population, including men, started to suffer from something that made them highly distressed, in pain, and unable to work, for one week out of every month?>>

I’m of the opinion too that they’d be effective pain relief but then I’m also of the opinion that if they had to put up with periods, pregnancy or childbirth they’d be tax-free tampons, better contraception possibly 100%, more drugs for pain relief in labour and a better understanding/sympathy towards those that go through them and experience negatives/pain.

PMS isn’t a joke and I’m going to link a few girlfriends to this article who also experience it being seen as. I’m happy my partner doesn’t take the mick out of my PMS symptoms, especially as I suffer from horrifically burning nipples for the week before (something he has to take care to avoid, even when cuddling) and sudden emotional sweeps in which i randomly burst into tears when soemthing sets me off (usually something on tv). If he did, he’d be in trouble but since his mum suffered bad PMS until menopause, emotionally and physically, she’s taught all her sons to live with it, accept it and respect the woman going through it. Some of my friend’s partners and my male and female friends who don’t suffer bad PMS…not so much.

And it can be very embarrassing and upsetting when you’re feeling ill/emotional and someone is ripping you for it every month. One of my girlfriend’s was ripping another who suppered bad stomach cramps and bad bowel activities the few days before, it was only light teasing about being able to ‘track’ her cycle but after a few months of the same jokes it wore thin on me, let alone my friend and I asked her, in a slightly narky way, to pack it in else she’d find that the friend she was ripping may start beinging up something embarrasing to her, her occassional bout of piles perhaps, to rip back.

I’m definietely going to read through this again later because i have to admit i really resent my PMS. I hate feeling so hormonal and out-of-control of my body. I’m not sure if this is just a ‘me’ thing because i feel the same about my IBS, but i really resent being a slave to it sometimes-it feels that way when i’m trying to do some work and then, just hearing Nickelback on the radio or another sad song, makes me start to cry.

Jessica // Posted 13 October 2011 at 6:49 pm

Thank you for this article. I have endometriosis and every month I have extreme pain, bloating, mood swings not to mention having been told that I am “infertile”. The only treatment is to surgically “cut-away” the tissue every few years. No one knows what causes it, there seems to be scant research and huge numbers of women are affected by this condition. I’m speculating here, but I’m pretty sure that if men’s fertility was at stake so much more would have already been done. I totally resent the doctor shrugging his shoulders and telling me “It’s one of those things”.

Bo Novak // Posted 13 October 2011 at 11:36 pm

SUMMER – re: the weepiness during PMS. You’re not alone! I rounded up a collection of similar experiences – music, tv, even someone being nice to you – triggering tearfulness from women on Twitter in a PMS Warrior blog post:

JESSICA – in terms of practical things to help you combat your endometriosis (and at the risk of sounding like a broken record!), there ARE things you can do. For example, Dr Marilyn Glenville is a very sound holistic expert in the UK (has written a lot of books about all aspects of women’s health) and here’s a link to her page on endo: Obviously, you may have heard all this before, but she is an inspiring authority – including on infertility – and her approaches seem to have more success than conventional ones. (I have no links with her, but admire her work and read lots of her books and case studies).

We don’t have to be passive in managing our health and our hormones. Hormones affect EVERYTHING and women’s bodies are incredibly complex and sensitive (to the environment, to the mind-body connect, the works). Nonetheless we can – and should – get informed so that we are armed when talking to doctors who may be indifferent, or well meaning but uninformed.

Jen // Posted 14 October 2011 at 3:53 pm

Great article – I can completely empathise with the lack of support from the medical proffession. I used to suffer with period pains so badly it would leave me curled up in pain in bed for days and for a couple of days a month I would get so miserable that I would get upset at the smallest thing and find it hard just to get out of bed in the mornings.

For a condition that affects such a large proportion of the population there is certainly not enough recognition of the condition in the work place and I whole heartedly agree with you that if it was something men suffered with it would be a completely different story all together.

The only thing I’d disagree with is where you say there is no medical cure for PMS and that we shouldn’t take medical action. While I can only speak for myself since having a mirena coil fitted 2 years ago I haven’t had any of the symptoms I used to suffer with, I find my emotions much easier to deal with and infact I have no periods at all. While most women’s lives are undoubtedly organised around the patriachal system and there is always debate in feminist circles over birth control I find it liberating that I can take control of my body and emotions.

Rose // Posted 14 October 2011 at 8:24 pm

@Jen – Yeah! Three cheers for Mirena Coils!

I’ve been using them for 8 years, (I’d say they work well for me for four years before I need a top up – which is pretty low maintance!)

No symptoms of ‘the cycle’ – though some emotional hormonal guys do still accuse me of PMSing, (and you know that it’s an accusation with them!).

My current partner, (male), is interesting though, perhaps it’s just that I’m a little older and wiser now, but I can kinda track his hormonal cycle. (Via his tearfulness, stress levels, loss of concentration, etc.). Sometimes he’s going to need extra hugs.

I think it would be wonderful if society could accept its mammal nature, and come to terms with the idea that we are all hormonal creatures, female and male alike. If we are to be rational, first we’ll need a little self-knowledge!

Jessica // Posted 15 October 2011 at 5:46 pm

Bo, Thank you for offering suggestions to help treat endometriosis/infertility. However, I do somewhat resent it when people suggest improved diets/supplements etc. I understand that this may help for some women (in my case I’m already pretty healthy!) but I feel that the emphasis has to be on putting pressure on the medical establishment and research facilities to improve women’s reproductive health… rather than once again putting the onus on the woman to “sort herself out”.

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