Behold, the familiar impending doom of the monthly bleed. What. A. Hoot.
Like the meeting that could have been an email, our periods are the pinnacle of inconvenience. The doorbell that rings mid-poo, the dress pocket that catches on a door handle and immediately indicates how the rest of your day is going to go, the reflection of your boobs on the bath taps when you’re just trying to capture an innocent zen bath photo. None of them, however, match up to menstrual cycle misfortune, or at least the perceived misfortune.
If you’re exhausted by period problems and wondering if there’s another way to live in harmony with your menstrual cycle, you’re in the right place. Whether you’re contending with debilitating period pain or you simply want to understand the inner workings of your cycle to benefit from a stronger connection with your body, we’re going to take a deep dive into our cycles right here in a place free from stigma and shame.
The cycle basics
Given the lack of menstrual and sex education, it’s no wonder so many of us are left mystified by our cycles and completely out of touch with our hormones. Understanding the cycle basics can provide a great foundation for a better relationship with it, simply by being aware of what your body is going through at each phase of your cycle.
Many menstruators would be forgiven for thinking our cycle refers exclusively to the phase when we bleed, however, our cycles affect us all through the month
Many menstruators would be forgiven for thinking our menstrual cycle refers exclusively to the phase when we bleed, however, our cycles affect us all through the month – from the start of one period (day one of your cycle) to the next – and can be responsible for everything from energy levels to mood and productivity. This is often referred to as a 28-day cycle, though many menstruators have shorter or longer cycles. From day one (the first day of your period and significant blood loss) to ovulation, you’re in the first half of your cycle which is referred to as the follicular phase.
Then, from ovulation to the start of your next period or pregnancy, you’re in the second phase of your cycle known as the luteal phase, and those are the two key halves that make up the sequence of your menstrual cycle.
It’s no secret that women’s health is seriously underfunded and overlooked, leaving many people feeling completely isolated and ignored. Despite the fact one in three women or vulva-having people will suffer from a gynaecological or reproductive health problem, less than 2.5% of publicly funded research is dedicated solely to reproductive health. There is five times more research into erectile dysfunction, which affects 19% of men, than into premenstrual syndrome which effects 90% of women. When it comes to pain and health, women and vulva owners continue to be woefully neglected, and even more so if those people are people of colour, non-binary or trans.
There is a huge disparity between the number of people with hormonal and reproductive issues and the amount of funding and research that goes into them.
In the frankly rare instances when women and vulva owners can access reproductive and gynaecological health care, their experience is often misdiagnosed or undermined due to lack of education amongst health care professionals and the fact that women and people with vulvas are not believed when they share their experiences, whether it be symptoms that point to perimenopause, premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) or endometriosis. Often these issues are only deemed worthy of investigation when you’re trying to conceive because only then when our ovaries are going to be used in a reproductive capacity are our concerns heard and validated.
Cycle tracking, then, is one simple way to trust your body, get your answers and obtain the data needed to bolster your experience and should you experience reproductive health issues, you can share these insights to prioritise and advocate for yourself in order to get the professional care you deserve.
Tracking your cycle enables you to live in harmony with your mind and body, adjusting your behaviour according to what you need, physically and emotionally, within each phase. It dismantles the belief that you need to be productive on the days when your body is really fighting for its right to rest without guilt.
Learning to listen to your body & respect what it needs from you
We talk a lot about practising mindfulness in our lives but when it comes to our cycles, we’re completely disconnected.
The constant shift in our hormones impacts the way we feel throughout our entire cycle.
At the start of your cycle, when you have a period, hormone levels are low which explains why you may feel a dip in energy levels and an intuitive desire to rest and retreat. Pair that with menstrual cramps and tender breasts and it’s a recipe for pizza in the bath. This is the part when we need to listen to our bodies. If we’re tired, we rest, if we’re hungrier than usual, we eat more calories and if we don’t want to socialise, we stay home and get an early night.
As we move through the first phase of our cycles, oestrogen gradually increases and peaks just before ovulation and this can cause us to feel more sociable, light-hearted and energised. Our behaviour syncs up with our cycles in a way that encourages us to make the most of our fertile window when conception is possible. In the days leading up to ovulation, testosterone is also prominent in our bodies and can increase our sexual desire, motivation and productivity.
Once you ovulate, there’s a hormonal drop off and you may feel completely different from the days when you were transitioning through your fertile window, or you may feel just a subtle difference in your state of being (not everyone feels the changes so acutely).
About a week before your next period is due, you’ll probably feel more interested in your internal world than the external world and this is largely down to progesterone. For the most part, the presence of progesterone in the second half of your cycle has a calming effect on the nervous system and chills you out, though some people may respond to it differently like those with PMDD. This is the time to hibernate and embrace that deep and restful sleep ahead of your next period.
You can tune into your feelings, recognise them, own them and harness their power.
Understanding how the different phases of your cycle affect you in your day-to-day life, whether those changes are subtle or substantial, arms you with the knowledge, self-compassion and awareness of your fluctuating biology and how your hormones may be responsible for everything from your ability to focus, your mood, sex drive and energy levels. From here, you can begin to tune into your feelings, recognise them, own them and harness their power. The more we tap into why we’re feeling a certain way during our cycles, the more we can adjust our behaviour accordingly and go easy on ourselves.
Knowing this information and connecting with the intrinsic wisdom of your cycle in this way is a simple but incredibly effective tool that can make a huge difference when it comes to understanding how every nuance of our cycle affects our ability to work, socialise, concentrate, sleep, eat and exercise. It allows us to make sense of our feelings and channel their energy in a way that’s beneficial for us, which is always going to be conducive to a better, more empowering cycle.
The relationship with your cycle
Working on the relationship you have with your cycle demands an openness around making changes, acknowledging your cycle’s presence and communicating with it in a helpful way.
Perhaps for those with long cycles, you spend the majority of that time frustrated at your period’s infrequency and thus, your relationship with your cycle is based around feelings of relief when it shows up but resentment for its irregularity. For anyone trying to conceive, you might be at loggerheads with your cycle right now because for every month it insists on arriving, it’s preventing you from achieving the very thing the cycle is functioning for in the first place. Frustrating much?
What is your cycle telling you and how can you use those signals to strengthen your relationship?
Acknowledging the ever-changing relationship you have with your cycle allows you to approach it from a loving place, whatever obstacles you face each month. It creates positive change to rework the dynamic of the relationship you have with your cycle so that you’re working together. This paves the way for communication and invites perspective. For example, instead of berating it for its sporadic nature, you might feel curious to know more, what is your cycle telling you in those instances and how can you use those signals to strengthen your relationship?
You enter the chat. You listen, lean in, invite conversation and establish the kind of boundaries that allow you to respect your cycle, even if it has its challenges. You don’t have to be in love with your cycle, neutrality can be just as instrumental and just as empowering.
Your thoughts inform your relationship with your cycle and all thoughts are optional. You get to choose how you perceive your cycle.
If your cycle-based symptoms are really impacting you, having this communication line enables you to take care of yourself with love and compassion. You’re conversing with your cycle in a more helpful and encouraging way, and that’s an important approach.
It is possible to feel empathy for your cycle, even if it’s not plain sailing and that in itself is an empowering realisation. Nobody’s asking for it to be a perfect relationship but if you can get to a place where it feels amicable and respectful, it can still serve you. You don’t have to celebrate it but you can find a way to honour it with your own thoughts.
Letting go of the pressure to have the ‘perfect’ cycle
Part of having a relationship with your cycle and reaching a place of neutrality with it means letting go of perfect and making peace with pain. That’s not to say that those who are experiencing debilitating pain and misdiagnoses should not seek professional help, it means that we, as menstruators, don’t run away from feelings of discomfort or sedate them with forced positivity. All emotion is valid and appropriate and to tell someone with chronic pain that they should be embracing their period is unreasonable and unhelpful.
In some situations, processing what we’re feeling is the positive approach we need in order to form a deeper and more kind-hearted connection with our cycle. By practising neutral thought work, you make room for improvement. You open your mind to another possibility and maybe from there, you take another step towards positivity when it’s helpful for you to do so. When we understand ourselves and grant ourselves the love and respect to feel what we need to feel in any given moment, you can’t undermine the tremendous impact that has on your quality of life and the ripple effect that self-compassion has on your cycle.
The power of conversation & shared experience
Periods are still subject to stigma, shame and misogynist gibes. They are hidden from view; a dark and under-researched mystery shoved up a tactical long sleeve to spare us the walk of shame to the bathroom; a bathroom where we sit on a throne of humiliation, trying to menstruate quietly. We try to bleed silently, without disrupting the WC ambience with our tampon rustling and that is a symptom of patriarchy.
Perhaps the best way to have agency over our cycles is simply by talking about them in the right way. Acknowledging the pain of our bleeds, paying attention, being attentive with our bodies and instead of recoiling at the thought of another cycle, or feeling guilty because we aren’t productive, shift our mindsets to embrace each phase of cyclical living and stop othering this experience.
Maybe we simply need to stop acting like being hormonal is something to dread and make way for the conversation that says it’s something to accept openly, compassionately and without shame.
Just like the seasons, you will bloom and bleed in a riot of human feelings, from the wild through to the wonderful; winter through to spring – and every one of these expressions of cyclical living has the potential to liberate you.
There is a certain power that comes from having this monthly experience and getting to know your cycle is not only the greatest act of self-care but one of the most untapped resources for improving your mental health.