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Mental Health and Periods: What is Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Toronto chapter.

Edited by: Tanmaya Ramprasad

The pain of having a period

I still remember the first time I got my period. I was ten years old and frightened by the sight of blood in places that blood had never been before. Despite my child-like confusion at the time, I soon grew accustomed to the idea that this was going to be a common occurrence throughout the next several decades. However, what I had yet to learn in the years to come was the many side effects of having a period.

It really is no grand revelation that being on your period isn’t fun. Those few days of bleeding every month often bring with it a slew of cramps, back pain, bloating, migraines, exhaustion and many other intolerable physical symptoms. Yet, the symptoms that are often swept under the rug, that go undiscussed are the psychological effects of periods.

Your menstrual cycle changes your body in ways you can visibly see, and in other ways, you simply can’t. A normal period is often associated with irritability, depressed mood, anxiety and mood swings. I’m sure most who experience a period can attest to the emotional changes they experience whilst menstruating. However, when the sudden bouts of depression and anxiety, the mood swings, and the other emotional changes seem to take a turn for the extreme, then a problem arises.

SO What is premenstrual dysphoric disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is a severe, sometimes disabling extension of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Although regular PMS and PMDD both have physical and emotional symptoms, PMDD causes extreme mood shifts that can disrupt your work and damage your relationships.”

For some, PMDD is a temporary inferno characterized by extreme psychological symptoms — including depression and suicidal ideation. The reality is that PMDD instils feelings of intense sadness and sickening hopelessness. Many are crippled by disturbing thoughts and uncontrollable misery that come every month without warning.

What’s more, is the distorted image of yourself that may result from PMDD. Body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder on its own; however, in the presence of PMDD, the existing condition is amplified. The condition is so severe that it renders your reflection unrecognizable and causes you to fixate on perceived physical flaws.

WHy isn’t pmdd talked about more?

The social stigma against both mental illness and periods results in an incredibly isolating experience for those suffering from PMDD.

It’s no secret that mental health problems are often trivialized in everyday society. Despite the social media hashtags and all the mental health campaigns, there is a burgeoning mental health crisis that is never addressed because of all the hushed whispers and prejudice against those suffering from mental illness.

But, the harsh reality remains — invalidating the existence of mental illness doesn’t make it any less real. This stigma originates from a fear of the unknown. What people can’t learn to understand, they grow to fear. Simply because people cannot explain abnormal behaviour, they must fear it, and this fearful ignorance manifests into a social stigma.

However, there is no ignoring the misguided trope that periods supposedly “make women crazy.” The notion that women are incapable of making logical and rational decisions whilst on their period is entirely sexist and misogynistic. Yet when a period really does impair someone’s ability to think clearly, they are made to feel as though they are crazy because of these stereotypes. What’s worse is that their experience is also reduced to nothing more than a sexist joke.  

Historically, both everyday society and doctors alike have invoked these misogynistic stereotypes. Women with physical and mental illnesses were often diagnosed with “hysteria” – a blanketed term that referred to all women who were regarded as excessively emotional. Not surprisingly, this false diagnosis led to a decline in the condition of most women. I mean, anyone who’s read Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” knows the extent to which women’s mental health conditions were disregarded. Not to mention, the narrator’s worsening mental health renders her false diagnosis all the more painful.

What does this mean for pmdd?

Ultimately, the stigma against illnesses such as Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder creates a perverse cycle in which ignorance prevents research on the subject, which in turn fuels more ignorance and fear against female psychiatric disorders.

As such, before we address PMDD, we must first destigmatize the illness.

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Shernise is a third-year undergraduate at U of T studying neuroscience and psychology. She is a part-time writer for HC U Toronto and she's also a student journalist at The Varsity.