Health Care, Love, Wellness

Bad period cramps can be “almost as bad as a heart attack” – why aren’t we taking them seriously?

We need to be “modest” and quiet about any cramps we’re experiencing. If we need to be vocal about our cramps, we have to say we simply “feel sick” or have a “stomach ache.”

As a Pakistani-American Muslim, I come from a culture which tends to shame women for menstruating. We need to make sure that no one knows we are on our period.

We need to hide all signs of pads or tampons, even if that means we keep them in our bedroom closet instead of in the bathroom, which makes very little practical sense.

We need to be “modest” and quiet about any cramps we’re experiencing. If we need to be vocal about our cramps, we have to say we simply “feel sick” or have a “stomach ache.”

This is absurd. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

By continuing to speak (or rather, not speak) this way, we are essentially teaching women not to express concerns about their health, not to share feelings of pain, and not to seek support. While suppressing the voices of girls may not be the intention, a lot girls do feel ashamed and suppressed, and the way we feel matters.

Encouraging silence results in grown women seeing their health and their pain as unimportant or even laughable and results in periods becoming something we only talk about if we’re making a joke.

For example, Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), a major depressive disorder, is different from PMS, and a surprisingly few number of people know anything about it. Many women who suffer from PMDD spend their entire lives thinking they are simply experiencing PMS, so they never seek help.

In fact, seeking treatment for PMS or PMDD, really seeking treatment for anything related to a woman’s menstrual cycle, is often stigmatized as a sign of weakness, and not just by men.

Women are tired of being seen as weak. As a result, many of us try our best not to complain.

But because of this, PMS nor PMDD is not acknowledged even among some women as a legitimate health problem.

Even doctors and mental health professionals have a subconscious tendency to dismiss symptoms of both PMS and PMDD as “characteristics of women” instead of symptoms. For all of these reasons, treatment, in either case, is rarely sought or given. This needs to change.

The more aware we are of conditions like PMDD, the more likely we will be to seek help ourselves or encourage other women to seek help. None of us deserve to be living with a major depressive disorder without any support simply because we’ve been told by friends or family, who are not able to feel our pain or our symptoms, that it’s “just PMS” and we should pop a Midol.

Women deserve to be more vocal about their concerns regarding their own physical, mental and emotional health without being perceived as weak. Women deserve to be taken seriously when they experience pain and receive proper treatment.

What is Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder and how is it different from PMS?

  • PMDD is a more extreme, debilitating form of PMS and mostly has to do with mood-related symptoms. It is classified as a disorder for the same reason all disorders are: its symptoms can significantly disrupt one’s ability to function in a normal and healthy way. In other words, PMDD generally interferes with everything from work, social life, family, and romantic relationship.
  • Both PMS and PMDD can occur about a week (somewhere between 7 and 10 days) before your period and last until a few days after your period begins. However, while PMS is widely known to affect a majority of menstruating women to some extent, PMDD affects 3 – 8% of menstruating women.
  • PMDD, unlike PMS is most common in women who are in their late 30’s or early 40’s, but can also happen to individuals much earlier on.
  • Pre-Menstrual Dysphoric Disorder has been described by some who experience it as scheduled periods of severe depression that occur each month. This makes sense, because PMDD, much like PMS, is associated with decreases in serotonin levels.
  • Although the symptoms of PMS and PMDD overlap, with cases of PMDD, at least one emotional or behavioral symptom is hyper-prominent; this could be depression, anxiety, moodiness, or anything else.]

How is PMDD different from depression?

  • We are able to differentiate between PMDD and depression due to the difference in timing; PMDD occurs specifically before and during the beginning of one’s menstrual cycle each month, whereas depression is constant.
  • It’s important to know, however, that sometimes PMDD is a case of menstruation making underlying depression or anxiety symptoms worse due to hormonal changes. This does not mean PMDD is not real or does not matter as it’s own entity, it simply means there may be additional, more general mental health issues that require treatment.
  • Treatment-wise, PMDD is more similar to the treatment of depression than it is to the treatment of symptoms of PMS. While most of us take Midol or Advil to treat symptoms of PMS, treatment options for PMDD include but are not limited to antidepressants, nutritional supplements, birth control pills (or any other form of hormone therapy), herbal remedies, lifestyle changes (such as diet and exercise), and stress management through something like therapy.

PMDD was listed as a disorder that needed further research for a very long time, but as of 2013, it has finally landed an official spot in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders.

If men bled once a month and experienced cases of PMDD, I guarantee it would not have taken until now. And tampons would be free. And PMDD would warrant medical leave from work.

Nevertheless, we are heading in a positive direction. We are finally moving away from stigma and towards acceptance.

By increasing our own individual awareness regarding disorders like PMDD and sharing the knowledge we gain with the people in our lives, we can ensure that treatment is sought more often and needless suffering for women is minimized.

There are several self-screening quizzes available online for anyone that thinks they may be suffering from PMDD, but the most important thing women can do is speak to their doctors honestly and openly about their periods and encourage other women to do the same.