We all suffered through the embarrassment and indignity of taking sex ed in school, whether at an elementary or secondary level. I remember health classes focusing more on anatomy and the science of reproduction, and less on the social context of this subject. Being a woman, I obviously can’t speak to the male experience, but I can tell you what it’s like to live with a body that changes on a regular cycle – and provide advice to prepare others for dealing with it.
First, some background. PMS stands for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome. It occurs as a result of both the hormones progesterone and estrogen dropping dramatically at the same time (see this post to learn about why this happens). It occurs at the end of every menstrual cycle leading up to the time of bleeding. I’ll say it louder for the folks in the back: PMS occurs just before the period begins. It is NOT THE SAME as having a period.
I hate it when people don’t understand that distinction.
Basically, PMS is any symptoms felt as a result of hormonal changes. It can be physical, emotional, or even imaginary. If it’s happening because of hormones, it’s PMS.
Imagine being sleep deprived for a few days, getting only 2-3 hours’ sleep per night. By the third day, you’re going to be moody, sensitive, cranky, hungry, exhausted… sound familiar? Now imagine feeling sleep deprived for a week every month, and having to put on a brave face in public when all you want to do is sleep. That’s the closest analogy I can imagine to describe the hell of PMS.
It feels like there’s a rain cloud following you at all times, ready to erupt and soak you with its tears. Sometimes it seems like your brain totally transforms itself.
I call it PMS brain. It’s similar to a normal brain, but has a lot less tolerance for upsetting triggers. This affects primarily anger, sadness, and libido (unfortunately, positive emotions like happiness and euphoria are conveniently unaffected). If something only slightly irks me normally, during PMS it will upset me more. Things I would normally dismiss as not worth getting upset over will be much harder to push aside. That self-deprecating voice in my head, which reminds me of all my insecurities, suddenly becomes louder and more difficult to ignore.
It doesn’t mean I’ll sit here weeping for no good reason. It means seeing an upsetting video will induce crying rather than a fleeting moment of sadness. It also means when I get turned on, the sensation is much more heightened (women often report increased sex drive at this time). It also means I can go from weepy to horny to angry without much transition time. Our emotions are felt more intensely, thus they come and go more quickly. But the emotional rollercoaster is NOT constant – it has triggers.
For those of us who understand the symptoms of PMS, we try our best to control our behaviour. I use alone time during PMS as a way to purge my negative emotions (ie: watching a sad movie knowing I’ll end up crying, because the act of crying can be emotionally cleansing for me). I will try my best to avoid known triggers, I let people closest to me know I’m PMS’ing so they can be more sensitive, and I stock up on comfort foods.
Yes, one of the ways to calm the PMS brain is to saturate it with my favourite foods. I have a major sweet tooth, so chocolate and cookies are my friends. Sometimes I get a craving for pizza or chips, but most often a tall glass of chocolate milk is the most soothing balm to my overly-emotional PMS brain.
The physical symptoms of PMS are numerous and can vary a lot for each woman. Even identical twins can have different PMS experiences. PMS, much like menstruation, can be affected by environment, stress, diet, sickness, and many other factors. Even the length of time it occurs and severity can vary between women and may be different each month. Generally, most women have a grab bag of symptoms that they typically get, some they rarely get, and others that never happen.
For instance, I usually get emotional upheaval, migraines, fatigue, bladder pain, food cravings, and anxiety. Rarely do I get tender breasts and a sore back. Other women may get some, all, or none of these symptoms. I have one friend who never has any symptoms whatsoever and I’m ridiculously jealous of her. My PMS week is so awful that I find myself relieved when menstruation begins, because it signals the end of my suffering for the month.
Unfortunately because symptoms, severity and length vary so much, there isn’t one universal way of handling a woman going through PMS. Each woman will be different and will have their own ways of dealing with this difficult time.
The best thing you can do is be mindful of her suffering by reducing her triggers (where possible) and providing unconditional support in the form of comfort food and a shoulder to cry on. Just listen to her vent her frustrations, without judgement or argument. Sympathize with her, ask her what she needs, and be extra sensitive to her emotions. And remember – we don’t have a choice about PMS, but you can choose how you react to us.