Real Life: From curse to blessing
Generations of women have been reared to view their period — traditionally labelled ‘the curse’ — in a negative way, as a time of emotional volatility and often severe physical pain.
But it doesn’t have to be like this, according to Pope. She says that not only can you significantly reduce period pain by understanding the way your individual menstrual cycle works, you can also use the knowledge to maximise your efficiency and creativity.
For many women, she acknowledges, the term ‘the curse’ is an appropriate metaphor.
“It can be very debilitating,” she says. “About one quarter of your month can be taken up by discomfort and inconvenience, whether it’s emotional upheaval or physical pain. There’s the dread of the pain and then the pain itself.
“However, if a woman starts to pay attention to her menstrual cycle, she may notice that there’s a very distinct pattern to her mood and energy throughout the month.”
Your menstrual cycle not only dictates your mood, she says — it also has a very significant effect on your abilities, personal strengths and energy levels over each four-week stretch.
In fact, the ebb and flow of the cycle is so strong it can be compared to the seasons.
Although the timing of each of Pope’s menstrual phases or ‘seasons’ is approximate, the four phases are generally fairly easy to pinpoint once you start to chart your cycle, says the author and facilitator, who suffered from severe endometriosis for many years.
You start to chart your cycle from day one, or the first day of heavy bleeding, which continues, depending on the individual, for around three or four days.
The first phase of your new cycle begins as your period ends — several days after day one.
So around day five you enter your pre-ovulatory phase or what Pope terms your ‘inner spring’. This lasts until day 12.
“In this phase there is a re-awakening of energy. It’s as if the lights come back on, and there is a natural enthusiasm and motivation.
“There’s a good current of energy here; you could liken it to a surfer catching a wave!
“This is the time to initiate something new, get on with things you need to tackle or to try out things you’re not sure of.”
Phase two, which runs approximately from about day 13 to day 21, is when you start to move into the ovulatory phase or ‘summer’.
“This is superwoman territory — your energy is at its peak and you have a lot of physical and emotional energy.
“You’re really in your flow at this time, so you can get things done. You initiated things in the last phase and you carry them through in this one because you have the energy to do the hard yards.
“You also have a real networking capacity around now so it’s also a great time for socialising.”
From about day 21 to about day 25/26 you hit the pre-menstrual phase or ‘autumn’.
“The wheel turns and you start to come off the high; you may feel on a bit of a downer,” says Pope.
However, she reassures, this phase can be a very practical one.
“Although your energy may be dropping you’re more sensitive to things; you have more insight into what is working and what’s not working.
“Your eye becomes more critical and more assessing. You assess, analyse and edit.”
In this phase it’s also important to go a little more slowly and rest, she says.
“Don’t push yourself too much. As this phase develops, a woman will feel like she wants to withdraw more.
“This is why women can get cranky and irritable around this time — it’s a time when you need to take care of yourself.”
Women who don’t understand the shifts in their cycle and its effects tend to be unnecessarily hard on themselves, she explains.
“You expect yourself to be the same as you were in previous phases and you are not. This phase is quite a creative time, it’s also a good time to polish up your work so if you know what is going on you can capitalise on it.”
If your energy levels are low and you feel less able to put yourself out, don’t force yourself.
Around day 26 or so, she says, expect to move into the menstrual phase, or ‘winter’.
“This is the chill-out time,” she says. “Although you cannot control what you do at work, you can control other aspects of your life, so lighten your load where you can.”
Instead of forcing yourself through your normal chores, step back and take things slowly.
“If you slow down you will feel more of a sense of letting go. It actually makes menstruation much easier to handle if you understand that you’re meant to slow down a little.
“Don’t force yourself through your normal exercise regime around now. Don’t make yourself go out and socialise. Follow the pace of your body, not your head.”
If you chart your cycle over three or four months, says Pope, you will begin to see your individual pattern.
“Note what day of your cycle you are on and write down a brief explanation of your mood.”
It can make a significant difference to your life, she says, because understanding how your body works can help with symptoms such as cramps and headaches.
“The ‘winter’ phase is about letting go,” she says. “A lot of women feel they’re supposed to keep going, and that there’s something wrong with them because they want to stop.”
However, she says, if you accept the need to power down a little, you may find that this can be a time of creative inspiration for life issues.
“You may notice that solutions present themselves to you if you go with the flow. I have yet to meet a woman who has tried this technique and has not experienced some benefits.”
Your menstrual cycle is also an excellent self-care tool, believes Pope, who says that once you reduce the stress in your life, you may also find that the symptoms of period pain reduce. Lifestyle habits can also have an effect on PMT and period pain.
“Pre-menstrual problems are often exacerbated by lifestyle habits like not having a nourishing diet, drinking enough water or taking regular exercise.
“If you have not been taking care of yourself your body will tell you and period pain may increase, so addressing lifestyle issues can go a long way towards improving menstruation.”
Look at your diet, she advises, and try eliminating white flour, sugar and highly processed foods. Eat whole, fresh foods. Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake can help.
“Take the lifestyle changes slowly one thing at a time. Anecdotally, I have found that avoiding tampons during menstruation can help with period pain.”
Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo will give a one-day menstrual health workshop in Dublin on June 12.