Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Menstrual Cycles

I was recently asked to be member of a panel to discuss issues around Women in STEM.  I've participated in several of these panels before and so I was expecting the normal topics: unconscious bias, impostor syndrome, work-life balance, family choices, sexual harassment etc.  As the panel was preparing for the event, a topic was suggested which I had never heard discussed at the public level before — menstrual cycles.

According to the Mayo Clinic 75% of women experience some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).  PMS includes symptoms like mood swings, fatigue, irritability, and depression.  Up to 8% of women suffer from a more extreme reaction (premenstrual dysphoric disorder, PMDD) which includes symptoms like no interest in daily activities and relationships, feelings of sadness or hopelessness, possible suicidal thoughts, feelings of tension or anxiety, feeling out of control, mood swings with periods of crying, panic attacks, irritability or anger that affects other people, problems sleeping, and trouble concentrating.

I find it strange that while so many women suffer from these monthly symptoms — which effect our functionality, work, and relationships — this is something that people rarely talk about.  Two of the women on the panel admitted to having some of the more severe PMDD side effects listed above. One woman said that she simply couldn't think during certain times of the month: that her concentration and ability to focus were so bad that she felt the need to avoid colleagues or meetings so that no one would realize how incapacitated she was.  Another women admitted to taking medication one week a month to control her anxiety, depression, and mood swings.

Everyone on the panel was mystified as to how to talk about this sensitive subject.  None of the affected women wanted special treatment or to use these symptoms as an excuse to do less work than others.  Yet, because this is a gendered problem (and a problem that not every female suffers from) they didn't feel comfortable explaining to managers, coworkers, or even friends the effect of their cycle.  Men and women on the panel who didn't experience PMS or PMDD also found it difficult to understand what a real impact this has on some of their colleagues.

We did include the topic on the panel. One of the women was brave enough to share her experience/struggles.  Our hope was that by having a public discussion we would raise awareness of the various ways women are affected by menstrual cycles.  Perhaps this can be part of a continued dialogue of the various ways that the female experience can be different than the male experience.


Anonymous said...

I would disagree with the underlying assumption here that PMS is real. I certainly won't question that the physical symptoms occur (I am female), but the mood changes usually don't hold up in psychological studies. The article linked below has many examples. (PMDD might be different, I'm not sure.) I'm certainly supportive of women in astronomy (the blog and in a general sense), but if we are going to address women's issues, we should make sure they are issues that hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Jessica Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks for the feedback. I hadn't seen that latest study before. I appreciate you adding to the conversation.


Anonymous said...

Anyone who experiences the symptoms knows that, studies aside, moods can definitely be affected. This definitely impacts my work. I often struggle with depression and concentration problems that are cyclic. It is a real problem that many women struggle with.

Anonymous said...

I think the right approach to this is rather discussing it as an issue women have, we need to be talking broadly about mental and physical health. Academia is a marathon, not a sprint, and we should treat it as such. Births and deaths, depression and anxiety, family issues (children or parents) - everyone has some of these, and we're not all going to be at our best every day - or even every year.

Anonymous said...

This is something that needs to be discussed more, both in science and in society overall. Women are viewed as a joke because of PMS, but they aren't any less smart or less capable because of it. I'm a professional woman myself who suffers from PMS severe enough that I have to take daily medication or I might be incapacitated at my "time". So I appreciate when someone brings up the topic in a manner that's respectful and both medically and socially concerning.

Also, looking at that study, it doesn't say much more than that the studies it looked at were flawed. I'd personally like to see those studies myself. After all, it's been seen in the past that anything which deals with mental health has an uphill battle from the get go.

bellatrix78 said...

A little late to the conversation, but I just want to chime in that in Germany by law you have to have a "women's room" where women can specifically address these symptoms. Whether it is PMS, PMDD, pregnancy... regardless - it is a room, where they are allowed to lie down without any stigma and even are encouraged to use it (I know my boss has). This is different from a nursing room, btw.

Evecare said...

The way you explain is really awesome. I used to have the worst PMS symptoms – mood swings for sure. But out of control sugar and fat cravings. Surprisingly, the more fat I ate, the less sugar I craved during my PMS.
Next, I started a low(er) carbohydrate diet, keeping my daily carbs between 50-70 grams, pretty much every day. It’s been two months since I’ve been following this low carb and high fat (40% of calories to even 60% of calories) eating style, and also supplementing with fish oil and cod liver oil. These two months….NO PMS. For the first time in my 27 year old life. And I’m not on birth control since 8 months….everything’s steady, normal….
A high fat (nuts, olive oil, eggs, meats) diet and a bunch of red meat has kept my PMS off…so no more falling off the eating/training cycle for 1 week ever 4 weeks.