I don't know about you, but my period can definitely make me pretty emotional. Ever since I went off hormonal birth control, especially, I feel attuned to the waxing and waning of different moods that comes with each week of my cycle. And although it's not always the most pleasurable thing in the world to feel more introverted and emotional around my period (and I've said more than a few things I regret as a result), I also have to say I've found it useful.
In understanding more and more that my emotional shifts are subject to hormonal changes and other unavoidable physical circumstances, I find I'm more forgiving of myself and others, and less likely to see whatever I'm feeling in the moment — especially when it's negative — as The Absolute Truth. The truth is relative, and subject to change week to week. And in a way, that's kind of comforting.
One of the books that most helped me embrace this perspective is Dr. Julie Holland's Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You're Taking, the Sleep You're Missing, the Sex You're Not Having, and What's Really Making You Crazy, in which she talks about the way women's hormones can affect our moods — and why society is afraid of that. I reached out to Dr. Holland, as well as to Barrie Sueskind, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in working with young women and anxiety, and Jodi Aman, author of You 1, Anxiety Zero for more tips. Here are their suggestions (plus some of my own) for not just dealing with but potentially taking advantage of the fact that your period can make you emotional.
Give Yourself Permission To Be Emotional
This is the first step — and it's also the most important. In our culture, women are discouraged from acting overly emotional, lest we fulfill the stereotype of the "moody bitch" or the woman destabilized by her period. But think about it: why does being emotional inherently make you weak? Couldn't it actually also be a strength to be regularly confronting oneself?
"Society looks down on women being emotional, because clear-headed rational decision-making is prized, but our emotions provide important information that cannot always be deduced using pure logic," Sueskind tells Bustle. "Emotions can alert you to pause and reflect before proceeding with a particular course of action, allowing you to make more thoughtful decisions you are likely to feel good about down the line."
Now's your time to embrace and confront the things you may have been too happy to notice the rest of your cycle, when your estrogen and serotonin levels are higher. "It is normal to feel things. This is an opportunity to feel them deeply and then let them out. Scream into your pillow," Dr. Holland suggests. It also helps to give your feelings a name, whether by journaling or talking with friends. The point is, accept the fact that you're feeling emotional, don't bottle it up.
Embrace The Urge To Nest & Clean House
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.
"Your uterine lining builds up in case you need a place to put a baby," Dr. Holland explains. "Menstruation is about shedding that possibility and starting over. It's a fresh chance to create the environment you want for yourself, what you'd [theoretically] want a baby to enter into." During this time, Holland says you're more able to make decisions about what needs to stay and go in your life, because you're feeling less accommodating when your estrogen levels are lower. (Dr. Holland likes to call estrogen the "whatever you want honey" hormone.)
Around our periods, hormonal fluctuations also cause our serotonin levels to drop. That's part of why you might feel more depressed and anxious, but it also means your natural obsessive tendencies are awakened — and in manageable form, that can actually be a good thing. "You can see the dirt more easily," metaphorically and literally, Dr. Holland says. "You notice what needs fixing. This includes kicking toxic friends out of your life or getting rid of that slacker boyfriend." Personally, I find it to be an excellent time to organize my closet, and otherwise channel my OCD energy into something productive. ("Red clover tea is excellent for easing the emotions of menstruation," Aman adds.)
Get More Sleep
The National Sleep Foundation says that 30 percent of women report a lack of sleep while they're menstruating — which is a problem, because you actually really need more rest when you're on your period. At the point before the menstrual cycle enters its "shedding" phase, levels of estrogen and progesterone lower, causing energy levels to drop with it. (Low estrogen levels may also be responsible for creating more waste products in the body when we ingest carbs, contributing to increased fatigue.)
Getting more sleep is "always a good idea," according to Dr. Holland. "If PMS or your period makes you want to take to your bed and take it easy, go ahead. You have my permission. Having a heavy period can help you say 'this is a time out.' You're allowed to take a break from the game." There you have it — doctor's orders.
Be Actively Gentle & Remember This Is Cyclical
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 — an intention that is actually anything but weak and passive.
"Go easy on yourself. If your emotions get the best of you around your period, recognize the feelings, but practice mindfulness to avoid giving them more power than they merit," Sueskind advises. "Take some deep breaths and remind yourself that your hormonal fluctuations are making you more sensitive than usual."
You should also remember that you are more prone to stress during your period because of higher cortisol levels. "Progesterone increases cortisol which is a stress hormone and can increase anxiety symptoms," Aman tells Bustle. "If someone is already stressed, this increase of cortisol is more problematic. The more you judge yourself about it, the more cortisol is released, the worse it gets." Be gentle.
If You Can, Take A Mental Health Day
On that note, if you're just feeling like utter emotional sh*t, consider working from home, or giving yourself permission to take a mental health day.
"I vote for this anytime you can get away with it. We work too much, too long, too often," Dr. Holland says. "Take a page from France and realize you don't need to be available 24/7. And if you are, then you should be entitled to take off a full 24 now and again. HR and your boss should know by now that downtime makes you more productive, not less." Watch a movie that will give you a good cry, journal, organize your home, bake — just give yourself permission to do whatever feels kindest to yourself.
Note Your Feelings (And Maybe Make A Plan To Act On Them)
At the same time you're being gentle with yourself, it is also useful to be proactive about noting your emotions. "Fully feel your feelings first, with no narrative. Drop the story and just feel what's happening in your body, in your heart and soul," Dr. Holland says. "Once that's processed, you can start to see the REAL reason you're feeling this way. And it probably won't have much to do with what's happening now, or with the other person. More likely it has to do with things in your past involving family members. We project our own issues onto other people, so reflect on that."
Often, our periods are 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 "emotional," we should remember that there is a potential wisdom within our hormonal fluctuations. During your period, write down and reflect upon some of the things that were bugging you when you were PMSing — and think about what you can do about them after your period is over.
"Your period is a good time to make a plan, but I'd advising waiting until you're closer to mid-cycle to execute anything that requires confidence, drive, and focus," Dr. Holland says. (The higher levels of estrogen mid-cycle will make things easier.)
Get Yourself Off
Orgasm helps with cramps — but it also helps improve your mood. On the first day of your period, when estrogen and testosterone are at their lowest, you might not be feeling yourself, and that's also totally fine. 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. 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."
Dr. Holland agrees that this is as healthy a way as any to spend your time. "Orgasm is pleasurable, which is reason enough to go ahead. Recreation is therapeutic."
Sometimes your might just not want to move at all — and that's totally legit too (please don't beat yourself up for being lower energy during your period, or really, anytime). But if you can manage it, it is true that exercise helps with mood.
"Exercise releases endorphins that help to counteract distressing emotions," Sueskind says. "Hit the gym, go to your favorite workout class or take a long walk." For me, the gym almost always seems out of the question — but a walk almost always feels good. Just don't be violent with yourself about it — the idea isn't to release so many endorphins that you can't possibly feel sad. It's about letting your body move and process emotions in a physical way as well, with gentleness. Dance around in your room, take a walk to your favorite pastry or to the movies. Move in whatever way genuinely brings more self-care into your life.
Congratulate Yourself Simply For Existing
When you think about it, it's pretty amazing you get a period on the regular (or irregular). Take a moment and pat yourself on the back simply for being badass enough to be able to function at all when you're bleeding, your hormone levels are constantly changing, and the patriarchy is making everything an uphill battle.
"You are part of a very long line of women who've come before you, who are around you, going through just what you are," Dr. Holland says. "It can be a bonding experience with yourself, with women everywhere, with mother earth. You are part of a sacred ritual that's been shared and continues to be shared with half the planet. And it's what keeps us all alive. Give your period props." And yourself, I might add.
Admit When It's Time To Ask For Help
All this said, if you feel your emotions are out of control in a way that's significantly messing with your work, relationships, and overall quality of life every month, you may be suffering from PMDD. If you notice significant symptoms of depression or anxiety around your period, Sueskind says you should consult with your doctor to determine whether a treatment plan might help you feel more stable throughout the month.
But otherwise, if you're just feeling some normal mood fluctuations, remember: there is nothing wrong, weak, or anti-feminist about getting emotional (or asking for support). In fact, it's our ability to weather those fluctuations month after month that's a large part of what makes us so resilient, empathetic, and interesting. Embrace the potential power in it.