Two women in a public bathroom passing a pad in a yellow and white wrapper between them

Let’s Talk About Periods and Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! One lesser-tackled mental health topic (in my opinion) is that of periods and mental health.

Invalidation: Public and Self

We often see in media the idea that a woman on her period is “crazy”- invalidating language that means it’s ok for others to ignore her feelings. I think it’s important to recognize that the hormonal changes we experience don’t suddenly make us different people. I, for one, become rather cranky, but not because I’ve developed a new set of preferences and opinions; I just have a lower tolerance for irritation. A much, much lower tolerance. Things that at any other time would simply make me shake my head suddenly either make me briefly, intensely angry or likely to burst into tears.

I find myself downplaying the effects of my period on my mental health all the time. I think it stems from its temporary nature. I know that it won’t last long, so it seems silly to let it take up much space on my list of mental difficulties. When I’m seeing red because somebody put a spoonful of cooked rice in the dishwasher and ran it, I invalidate myself. I tell myself that how I feel doesn’t matter because it’s caused by temporary hormones and my reaction is disproportionately intense. And it is temporary and more intense than is warranted. But the reality is, it’s extremely uncomfortable to experience month after month. Each small instance of unreasonable mood swinging adds up to something with tangible impact.

But it’s ~Natural~

Having a healthy menstrual cycle is a positive thing! If women for millennia have been dealing with theirs, why should I let mine be a roadblock for me? I’m sure women millennia ago thought it sucked just as much as we do, if not more. Modern methods of dealing with it hygienically and the availability of painkillers probably makes menstruating a good deal more comfortable for us. (Of course, there’s a conversation to be had about poverty’s restriction of women’s access to these modern resources. Not everyone enjoys the comforts of disposable period products. Here’s a good resource for learning about period poverty.)

There are definitely positive ways of talking about periods; their position in the menstrual cycle plays a vital role in fertility and reproduction, after all. That doesn’t eliminate the damage that periods can do to our mental health, however. We can recognize the beauty of a natural, cyclical process while also shaking our collective fists at Mother Nature.

A grid of tampons wrapped in plastic with no applicators on a light blue background
Photo by Natracare on Unsplash

PMS and Depression

As many as 3 in 4 women experience PMS. Symptoms include mood swings, irritability, crying spells, social withdrawal, and a host of uncomfortable physical symptoms. That alone is more than enough to be impactful when it comes to a person’s periods and mental health. And what about people who have a mental health diagnosis in addition to PMS? According to the Office on Women’s Health, “Many women seeking treatment for PMS have depression or anxiety. Symptoms of these mental health conditions are similar to symptoms of PMS and may get worse before or during your period.”

Personally, I can say with certainty that when I’m really struggling with my depression, my suicidal thoughts and the urges to self harm are worst leading up to and during my period. In fact, my period started a few days into my hospitalization in 2019 – a connection that I only made later on. The effects of the hormonal changes may be temporary, but my period is a setback to my mental health on a regular basis. And with an extremely serious thing like suicidal ideation, any factor that worsens it is nothing to be dismissed. Sometimes, even when things are getting better, I have sneaky, destructive thoughts because of hormonal fluctuations.

In those cases, it is helpful to remember that my period is to blame and that it will pass. I have to strike a balance, though. It’s easy for me to bully myself into feeling bad about slip ups and setbacks because “it’s just my period.” Hormones are powerful and their effects are very real, no matter how temporary.

Managing Periods and Mental Health

There are many ways to manage PMS for a better relationship between your periods and mental health. Many people find that lifestyle changes through diet, exercise, and healthy sleep are enough to improve their PMS, but your doctor might suggest other options as well. Hormonal contraceptives can help even out the dramatic peaks and valleys of hormone changes. For some people, PMS rises to the level of PMDD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. This can be treated through a variety of interventions.

It’s unfortunate that conversations about the mental health effects of the menstrual cycle are reserved only for certain private settings and are kept to a quiet minimum. Periods are a fact of life for many people. We should be able to discuss them openly as a legitimate factor affecting mental health. A survey of 1,500 women found that 58% have been embarrassed about their period at one point or another. 62% of respondents were uncomfortable even using the word “period.” Thankfully, there are many initiatives fighting stigma and working to provide resources to women and girls around the world, and we can keep the conversation going.

How does your period impact your mental health? Have you experienced period shame?

drawing of landscape with tree and river and words about self-compassion

Art for Mental Health Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Mental Health America has several initiatives to spread awareness during May. One of these is #mentalillnessfeelslike. Peruse different categories on their website, where MHA has compiled Instagram posts from people participating in the hashtag. It’s always comforting to find validation in others’ experiences.

The hashtag got me thinking about my own attempts to represent what mental illness feels like to me. This blog is mostly writings that describe my experiences with depression, anxiety, and their various treatments. So, for something different and a trip down memory lane, I thought I would take a jaunt through some of the art I’ve made on the topic of mental health/illness.

The following slideshow was my attempt to depict a strange sensation brought on by an antidepressant I no longer take. It left me feeling “better”, but in an artificial way, as if I could feel my depression just outside the boundaries of myself. It was sort of like being squeezed into a neutral mood that didn’t fit.

Depression 1Depression 2Depression 3Depression 4

And then we have The Potato Scale of Depression, born when I responded to “how are you” with “everything is mashed potatoes”. What I meant by that was that the world was dull, my senses felt mushy, and seeing past any of it felt impossible. The beauty of the potato scale is that it opens the door to describing your mood in a creative, silly way, while still communicating a serious topic. And, you get to have eye-opening conversations about how you and your conversation partner rank various types of fries. Of course, this is an abridged version of the scale; there’s a whole world of poorly-prepared potato dishes to choose from. (Soggy latkes, undercooked gnocci, etc.)

Potato Scale

Clearly, analogies are my favorite way to say how I feel. This next one is a good reminder for present me.

Balance

The rest are simply some depictions of what mental illness feels like to me.

 

collage-of-flowers-and-words-from-magazine-spelling-it's-going-to-get-better-with-watercolored-woman's-face

 

green-vine-climbing-white-wall

How I Learned to Advocate for Myself

I’ve been enjoying all of the content online for Mental Health Awareness Month, and I thought I’d contribute my own story. Here’s my own experience of why advocating for yourself is important.

I have severe psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition that makes itchy, flaky plaques where my skin cells regenerate too quickly. During my recent hospitalization (for severe depression), I let my doctors know about this in a brief, it’s-not-that-relevant-but-you-asked kind of way. When the psychiatrist asked if I had any physical conditions, I informed him of my psoriasis.

A few days later, I was meeting with my social worker to discuss my treatment plan. Under “diagnoses”, Major Depressive Disorder and psychosis were listed. Before I even said anything, my social worker quickly brushed it off and said “don’t worry too much about the psychosis- it might just be that you were confused when you came in”.

Now, I’m the kind of person who will eat the wrong food at a restaurant rather than speak up and point out a mistake. I’m the kind of person who willingly takes the middle seat on an airplane because my neighbor explains that she has to pee a lot. Seriously. I am not assertive.

However, diagnoses are a whole ‘nother bucket of fish. When I saw that on my treatment plan and heard my social worker minimize it, I made it clear that I was confused by it and wrote my concern in the¬†questions¬†portion of the form. The next time I saw the psychiatrist, I steeled myself in preparation to ask about the mysterious psychosis that I definitely didn’t have. Before I could bring it up, he sat down, sighed, and said “it turns out that they couldn’t read my handwriting and thought I wrote ‘psychosis’ when really, I wrote ‘psoriasis’. It’s all fixed, now.”

I laughed about it at visiting hour that night and for many nights after. Really, we’re still laughing about it. We’re getting some serious mileage out of that one.

The important thing is that I spoke up for myself and that it got remedied. I almost had an incorrect diagnosis which could have caused more confusion down the line. So, speak up! If something doesn’t look right or feel right, let your doctor know. They’re people too, and sometimes mistakes happen.

Also, handwriting is more important than you might think.