Hysteria, PMS, and the crazy hormonal myth: a guide to breaking the stigma

Hysteria, PMS, and the crazy hormonal myth: a guide to breaking the stigma

April 6, 2023

Have you ever been called hysterical? Notice how you feel when someone calls you that. Does it sting badly?

Let's face it, we've all been called crazy or hormonal at some point in our lives, especially when we're on our periods. But where does this stigma come from? Come explore the history of hysteria, its connection to PMS, and how you can break the stigma around your menstrual cycle.

The history of hysteria

The term “hysteria” is a former diagnostic category describing a state of mind, one of unmanageable fear or emotional excesses. Can you believe that it is over 2,500 years old?

The origin of the term

Hysteria comes from the Greek word “hystera”, which means “uterus”. In ancient Greece, hysteria described a “wandering womb”, a condition which was thought to be caused by a free-floating uterus. The idea was that the moon had such a strong pull on the womb, that it could block passages to the heart and lead to madness.

Hysteria from Antiquity to modern times

Both Hippocrates (~500 BCE) and Aristotle (~350 BCE) believed the wandering womb was a physical symptom of bad humors in womben. These beliefs were also perpetuated by the Roman Empire as well. Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and philosopher wrote “The Natural History” in the 1st century CE, claiming that period blood was dangerous. Abrahamic religions had something to say about menstruation, too. The Talmud (Rabbinic law) as well as the Christian Bible both considered periods to be unclean, and they each exempt womben from participating in rituals and excluded them from social activities.

By the onset of the Middle Ages, menstruation was seen as a sign of a womban's sinfulness and a punishment for the “original sin”. Any related maladies, such as painful cramping or mood swings were considered a part of this punishment.

Even during the Renaissance (16th & 17th centuries), when the first autopsies on womben showed that a uterus cannot actually move around the body, ideas around hysteria didn’t change by much. While from then on it wasn’t considered a physical condition any longer, the narrative turned to hysteria being a mental illness that could only affect womben. Beliefs around menstruation remained negative: having a period was still medically described as a dangerous and debilitating condition.

Gender and patriarchy in hysteria

In the 19th century, female hysteria was an extremely common psychological diagnosis in people of all genders, but still predominantly in womben, as they were believed to be naturally predisposed to mental and behavioral conditions. This widely held belief was heavily politicized during the Suffrage Movement (~1840’s) and during the First Women’s Rights Convention in the United States (1850’s). At the turn of the century, Sigmund Freud further developed ideas around hysteria by adding the dimension of repressed sexual desires to the mix. This, in turn, was politicized again during the campaigns for women’s right to vote (1918 in the United Kingdom and 1928 in the United States).

It wasn't until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association stopped diagnosing “hysterical neurosis” as a mental health condition.

The connection between hysteria and PMS

While the diagnosis of hysteria is no longer recognized in modern medicine, its legacy persists in the form of stereotypes and stigmas around womben's emotions and menstrual cycles.

Definition and symptoms of PMS

In 1931, Dr. Robert Frank coined the term “premenstrual tension” to describe a wide range of symptoms during the week prior to menstruation. The term "premenstrual syndrome" was later introduced by Raymond Greene & Katharina Dalton in 1950.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) refers to a set of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that some womben & folks with periods experience in the days or weeks leading up to their menstrual period. Symptoms can include mood swings, irritability, anxiety, depression, bloating, breast tenderness, headaches, and fatigue.

PMS is widely recognized as a medical condition, and its diagnosis is based on the pattern of symptoms womben and folks with periods experience. It is estimated that up to 90% of womben experience at least one symptom of PMS during their reproductive years, with around 20-30% experiencing moderate to severe symptoms.

The stigma continues

However, the patriarchal thread of “periods are our punishment” is still persistent today. Some people view it as a natural part of the menstrual cycle that should be tolerated without medical intervention, while others see it as a debilitating condition that requires treatment in the form of antidepressants, the birth control pill, or classic painkillers.

In some societies, PMS is stigmatized and dismissed as a purely psychological or emotional issue, rather than a legitimate medical condition. This can lead to womben and folks with periods feeling ashamed or embarrassed to seek medical help, and may prevent them from receiving proper treatment.

PMS research today

The current state of research suggests that the causes of PMS are multifactorial and may involve a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. Some researchers believe that hormonal imbalances (specifically estrogen & progesterone), may play a significant role in the development of PMS.

Others suggest that PMS may be related to changes in neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin, which can affect mood and behavior.

Recent research has also focused on the role of inflammation in the development of PMS. It's been linked to a range of physical and emotional symptoms commonly associated with PMS.

Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression have also been identified as potential contributors to PMS.

Breaking the stigma

We’ve come a long way since the wandering womb days. However, social and cultural factors, such as attitudes towards menstruation and classic gender roles, still influence how womben and folks with periods experience and report PMS and other period-related symptoms. So, how do we break this stigma, once and for all?

Recognizing shame

The first step is to recognize the internalized judgment and shame around our periods and emotions. This is no small feat, as we’re battling 2,500 years of intergenerational trauma and belief systems about hysterical, hormonal, and premenstrual womben and folks with periods. But once we understand the hysteria-PMS connection, we can learn to recognize where we hold and perpetuate these clichées and judgements within ourselves.

Our cyclical nature is not abnormal or pathological. It is the most natural thing in the world and we can learn to live with it again!

Remember: You are not mad. You are not bad. But you are allowed to be angry!

How to work towards healing PMS

It’s time we change the narrative around periods and our menstrual cycle! There is a way to recognize the premenstrual phase for its biggest opportunity: the release of pent-up emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, disappointment, sadness. All those dark feelings that we never show, because of cultural conditioning or “good girl syndrome” or having to keep it all together for our families.

So, here’s a practice you can try the next time you’re feeling the premenstrual call.

Feel into your body and explore the idea that maybe you’re having these PMS symptoms (while absolutely nasty, painful, annoying, and REAL!) because your body is screaming at you to release some of that stuff. Can you find a place inside yourself where this might be true?

Here’s how you can release some tension healthily (especially if you want to avoid exploding at your partner over that pair of socks on the floor or your kids or your co-workers):

  • Take a moment during your luteal phase to create a safe space for yourself (ideally just a few days before your next period).

  • Block out anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes for this practice.

  • Play loud music, if you can (headphones are also great, if they’re bluetooth, so you can move around) - whatever gets your heartbeat going.

  • Let the music move you. Literally. You can set the mood with the kind of song you choose (angry, afraid, sad, annoyed, etc.) and then let that song move your body. Get really expressive with it.

  • Incorporate props if you want (i.e. a pillow to scream into, or bundled up socks to throw around, a stuffed animal to hug and cuddle...).

  • Give yourself one song per emotion. This way, as soon as the song is over, you’re done and can come out of it again.

  • Wrap it up by journaling about what came up for you.

If you can manage to incorporate this practice into your monthly premenstrual routine, you should be able to feel less stress, not only during this fateful week before your period, but also during your actual period.

Talking about it

It is important to mention that just because we have understood where our judgments come from, learned how to recognize them within ourselves, and started working towards reducing that shame, doesn’t mean that the world around us will change with us. So, it is crucial that we share our journey towards cycle health with people we trust and love. Talking about our lived experiences, getting emotional support from others, and experimenting with different healing modalities can build our confidence and our community. The more we talk about our periods and menstrual health without shame or embarrassment, the more of us can fight for real change.

Because remember: You are not mad. You are not bad. But you are allowed to be angry!

The Baba Yaga app supports you further by

  • giving you the language and wisdom of mindful menstrual cycle tracking,

  • empowering you to view each of your cycle phases for its strengths and weaknesses,

  • reminding you that you are a cyclical superstar with daily changing hormone powers.