Pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is that lovely time during a woman’s menstrual cycle when her hormones are thrown out of balance, causing a storm of psychological symptoms such as anxiety, low mood, irritability and heightened emotions.
Well, at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. But our understanding of PMS is problematic, according to a TED talk by Robyn Stein DeLuca, research assistant professor of psychology at Stony Brook University. And here's why:
It's surrounded in myths.
De Luca says the media would have us believe that PMS causes more than 150 symptoms, but there’s no scientific consensus that it even exists.
I'm not saying women don't get some of these symptoms. What I'm saying is that getting some of these symptoms doesn't amount to a mental disorder, and when psychologists come up with a disorder that's so vaguely defined, the label eventually becomes meaningless.
With a list of symptoms this long and wide, I could have PMS, you could have PMS, the guy in the third row here could have PMS, my dog could have PMS.
DeLuca says research into PMS has been flawed, and that, according to medical guidelines, only three to eight percent of women suffer with it. The consequences of this, she says, is that the more we hear that everyone gets PMS, the more likely a woman is to think she’s suffering from it.
DeLuca argues that PMS narrows the boundaries of the role women should play in society. She says research suggests that PMS allows women to hide behind emotions that would otherwise be labelled “unladylike”.
PMS has become a permission slip to be angry, complain, be irritated, without losing the title of good woman.
The PMS myth also contributes to the stereotype of women as irrational and overemotional. When the menstrual cycle is described as a hormonal roller coaster that turns women into angry beasts, it becomes easy to question the competence of all women.
Women have made tremendous strides in the workforce, but still there's a minuscule number of women at the highest echelons of fields like government or business, and when we think about who makes for a good CEO or senator, someone who has qualities like rationality, steadiness, competence come to mind, and in our culture, that sounds more like a man than a woman, and the PMS myth contributes to that.
It's making big money
DeLuca says treating PMS like a serious disorder is good for profits.
Treating PMS has become a profitable, thriving industry. Amazon.com currently offers over 1,900 books on PMS treatment. And despite it not being an official disorder, reputable medical websites list it, alongside medications prescribed to treat it, anyway.
Pharmaceutical companies reap untold profits when women are convinced they should take a prescribed medication for all of their child-bearing lives.
DeLuca concludes that the emotions of men and women are very similar, and that we should forget the old myths of PMS turning women into emotional wrecks once a month.