"Don't tell me my PMS is all in my head - for me it's utterly debilitating"

Posted by
Annie Ridout
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

A (female) academic has declared that PMS (premenstrual syndrome) is a myth. Here, writer and editor Annie Ridout explains why this is so damaging - and why we must take the symptoms of PMS seriously

It starts with a headache. An unbearable, dull throbbing that affects my vision and makes it hard to speak. My stomach bloats until only leggings fit, my lower back aches and my breasts feel like punch bags that have been pounded repeatedly. I’ll have one big, painful spot on my chin.

This is my experience of the monthly premenstrual syndrome (PMS) that I experience in the lead-up to my periods. And I share the experience with 90 per cent of all menstruating women. So when I read psychologist Robyn Stein DeLuca’s provocative claims that PMS is a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for women when they need a break, I felt somewhat peeved.

In her new book, The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics And Lies About PMS Keep Women Down, DeLuca argues that PMS is a convenient myth that perpetuates the age-old image of women as hysterical and unable to control their own emotions. One that also gives us an excuse to not pull our weight for a few days each month.

She told Mail Online that “while hormones do cause some physical and emotional symptoms – women can get cramps, bloating and feel depressed – they certainly don’t affect us emotionally to the point that it’s a big deal. That’s where the myth is. That’s where it’s not true.”

But for me, it is the physical symptoms of menstruation that – at least in part – cause my emotions to go haywire. It can feel like I’m coming down with an illness for a week every month, and it’s utterly debilitating. The stomach pains can floor me; I have to get down on all fours in an attempt to relieve the pain. It makes it hard to leave the house, or to concentrate on work.

According to the NHS, alongside the common symptoms of PMS - bloating, breast pain, mood swings, feeling irritable, loss of interest in sex - around 1 in every 20 women will have more severe symptoms that stop them living their normal lives, known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

I’ve never been diagnosed with PMDD - instead, I affiliate myself with the majority of women who feel rubbish on their periods but can still just about function. However, these common symptoms shouldn’t be diminished. We go through them once a month, every month.

DeLuca isn’t the first academic to question the possibility of PMS being psychological, rather than biological. A 2012 study by scientists at the University of Toronto claimed there is “no clear evidence that PMS exists”. Researchers analysed 41 studies on the matter and found that only a handful could link mood swings and the premenstrual period. They wondered if this myth had been fabricated as a lucrative money-making scheme. After all, it is a $15 (£11.37) billion industry.

However, the NHS recommend viewing their research with caution, highlighting that since some of the studies were based on less than 10 participants, they were quantitatively unreliable.

One aspect of the University of Toronto’s study - that DeLuca also discussed - is the traditional belief that women’s moods are dictated by their hormones, and that this can be used in a negative way to label them as incapable or out of control. In my experience, there is some truth in this.

I have been called ‘mental’, ‘crazed’ and ‘psychotic’ by past boyfriends - and infrequently by my husband, although he’s too wise to go there often - following particularly emotional outbursts. This has been followed by an infuriating: “Is it that time of the month?”

If I am due on, I often feel pissed off by both the physical and emotional symptoms, and I don’t need my feelings to be trivialised by a womb-less man. And if I’m not due on, it’s frustrating that any feelings of anger or upset are labelled as ‘hormonal’, rather than an acceptable response to life’s challenges.

DeLuca explains that it’s OK to express your feelings without them being linked to hormones: ‘’Women have reasons to be moody and angry and they should express their anger and own it” - and I agree with her on this point.

But her suggestion that we use PMS to shunt our responsibilities, so that we can say: “I just don’t feel like doing this right now”, is demeaning and patronising. As is her solution to tell our partners ‘to do the food shopping or to pick up their socks’. 

I do get that it’s easy to blame hormones at the first sign of anxiety or depression - and DeLuca’s right: we should own our emotions, we don’t need an excuse for them. But lets allow each woman to decide for herself whether what she’s feeling could be linked to her monthly cycle.

In the wise words of Mary J Blige, in her brilliant 2001 song PMS: “My lower is aching, and my clothes don’t fit. Now ain’t that a bitch.”

Annie Ridout is founder and editor of The Early Hour. You can follow her @the_early_hour