Yes, you heard me: I'm suggesting that there are ways to make your period and PMS work to your advantage. And no, I'm not crazy. Or, if I am, I'm a crazy person who's managed to harness my menstrual cycle for her own good instead of evil. Hear me out.
While the struggles of PMSing and being on your period are very, very real, if you were to only look at media, you'd think having a menstrual cycle is all tears, cramps, and bloody underpants. Those of us with periods know that it is much more complex than that — and I believe it's time we started complicating that simplistic narrative. We know there are certain period hacks that can help ease the physical symptoms of our periods, but what about going a step beyond managing side effects, and actually using PMS and your period to improve your mental health?
If you're skeptical, keep reading. Many of these suggestions are backed by science, and for those that aren't, I can testify that they've worked for me. Here are nine ways I've been able to make my period work to my advantage, both physically and mentally — and that I hope might work for you as well.
1. Embrace The Urge To Nest
Right before your period, your progesterone levels rise, which can result in an instinct to "nest." We see this tendency manifest itself more dramatically in pregnant women, who in their later months of pregnancy have their highest progesterone levels — which often leads them to go into a frenzy of cleaning house and nesting in order to prepare for the baby. Right before and during our periods, we experience a lesser version of this tendency; a desire to perhaps bake, get cozy, and stay in.
I say, embrace that tendency. Look at your period as a time to listen to when your body and mind needs rest from the outside world — and don't feel badly for being a hermit, if that's what you're feeling. Utilize this as your time to slow down, recharge, and reflect.
2. Get Organized
In her fascinating book, Moody Bitches, Dr. Julie Holland explains how the change in hormones before your period can basically make you exhibit OCD tendencies. "Every month, when your body prepares for a possible embryo implantation, progesterone levels are building and causing a smaller form of nesting," Dr. Holland writes. "Toward the end of the cycle, a woman might become dissatisfied with her environment and obsessive about making changes in order to make sure the setting is appropriate next month for the burrowing of the embryo into the uterine lining ... You should definitely leave the tasks best suited to someone with OCD, like cleaning out your closets, for during the PMS part of your cycle."
If you're anything like me, you might find it's the only time of the month you genuinely enjoy cleaning house.
3. Reflect On What's Pissing You Off
Often, our periods can be accompanied by a sense of restless dissatisfaction as hormonal fluctuations cause our serotonin levels to drop. Dr. Holland suggests that rather than writing ourselves off as "crazy" or "moody" right before and during our periods, we should remember that there is a potential wisdom within our hormonal fluctuations. During your period, Dr. Holland suggests you write down and reflect upon some of the things that were bugging you when you were PMSing.
"Every cycle is an opportunity for a fresh start, to make your life over the way you want it," Dr. Holland writes. "PMS is a time of psychological inventory, to take stock and make sure you are where you want to be in your life. Harness the knowledge you garner when you're more critical, write it down, and put it into action when you're more genteel and diplomatic, as soon as your period ends. Try this for a month or two and see if you don't have some 'new month's resolutions' of your own."
4. Address Something You've Been Avoiding
Your period isn't just a good time to plan for the future — it's also a good time to address issues in your relationships that you've been avoiding.
"A good way to think of estrogen is as the 'whatever you want honey' hormone. Estrogen creates a veil of accommodation," Dr. Holland writes. "When estrogen levels drop before our periods, that veil is lifted ... The thoughts and feelings that come up during this phase of your cycle are real; they are genuine. If you're feeling overwhelmed or under appreciated, that you're taking on more than your partner, or that things are out of balance, chances are it's all true," Dr. Holland writes. "Pay attention to that critical eye, to those judgmental thoughts. They are probably more valid than you'd like to believe, and I bet they are actionable."
5. Use It As An Excuse To Sleep In
The National Sleep Foundation says that 30 percent of women report a lack of sleep while they're menstruating. That's unfortunate, because you actually need more sleep when you're on your period. You're likely to experience increased fatigue at the start of your period because of the impact that estrogen and progesterone have on your body's energy levels. At the point before the menstrual cycle enters its "shedding" phase, levels of estrogen and progesterone lower, which means that energy may be especially low. Low estrogen levels may also be responsible for creating more waste products in the body when we ingest carbs, contributing to fatigue. On top of all that, you're more susceptible to anemia and dehydration during your period — so use the week as an excuse to drink extra water, go to bed early, and sleep in a little late.
6. Remember That You Have An Orgasmic Head Start
Many women tend to be pretty horny during their period. As Bustle's sexual health columnist Emma Kaywin explains, "Because your pelvic area is literally more full at this time in your cycle (of a blood-based substance ... don’t think too much about it) you are more engorged, which is what happens during arousal. So your period basically gives you a head start on getting frisky." On the first day, when estrogen and testosterone are at their lowest, you might not be feeling it. But as your testosterone levels rise a couple days into your cycle, your sex drive may go up with it, giving you a natural head start on feeling aroused. Plus, you know, extra lubrication.
7. Begin To Think Of It As A Time To Treat Yourself
If you have a partner, ask them to massage your back, which might be experiencing more pain around your period. If you can afford it, invest in THINX period panties so that you have some special, nice underwear to put on when you start bleeding, instead of just stained old pairs. Treat yourself to extra dark chocolate, which helps with your magnesium levels and mood. Get a special candle for this time of month (lavender is said to especially help) and light it only during these weeks. Buy a heating pad, period tea, or even make a special playlist that you play during this time. In other words, treat yourself — and remember to tell yourself that you deserve it. Which brings me to...
8. Consider It An Opportunity To Practice Being Gentle With Yourself
On top of everything else, we are more sensitive to pain during our periods and more likely to experience feelings of negative body image — so really, this is an excellent time to practice the very important skill that is self-care. "Because of lower serotonin levels, we are more 'raw' and less emotionally blanketed before we menstruate. It is a time to rest and reflect and to honor deep feelings," Dr. Holland writes.
Every time you practice being gentle and forgiving of yourself, you strengthen your ability for the rest of the month to talk back to self-doubt and criticism. Instead of beating ourselves up for being "sluggish" on our periods or "moody" when we're PMSing, we need to remember to rest, be gentle with ourselves, and learn to listen to the valid emotions that society might write off as "bitchy."
9. Feel Proud Of How Resilient You Are
We ride the crimson wave every month; perhaps instead of berating ourselves every time we fall off, we should be proud we're able to surf in the first place. The fact that I menstruate every month and am able to ride the emotional and physical peaks and valleys that come with that is amazing to me — and I feel all the more powerful for it, emotional vulnerability and all.
"Women's empathetic skills can be a great source of useful information and strength, and there is some evidence that they are highest during our premenstrual days," Dr. Holland writes. "PMS is a great time to tune in to intuition ... Sensitivity is dismissed in our culture, but it really does have it's advantages." And so do our hormonal fluctuations, believe it or not.
Personally, I like to think of my cycle in seasons. My PMS would be the fall; a time to clean house and get ready to hunker down. When I get my period, it's winter; a time to reflect, a quiet time when I remember to take care of myself and slow down. When my period ends, I feel a huge surge of energy akin to spring, and when I'm ovulating, everything feels sexy and exciting, like summer. I find all of these "seasons" to be valuable to understanding myself in different ways, increasing my emotional resilience and intelligence. My ability to weather the seasons — not just every year, but every month — leaves me thoroughly impressed with myself. Perhaps you should be impressed, too.
Images: Alexandre Morin-Laprise/Moment/Getty Images; Giphy