These negative feelings towards women are reinforced by the ostensible volatility of their emo­tions. Their everyday experience is heavily influenced by their sensations, which they also use for decision making. Their current disposition dominates their actions to a far grea­ter extent than it does for men. Thus, a woman is and acts as she feels, and more often than not, she will also inform her fellow human beings about her state of mind and let them expe­rience how and what she feels – be it by laughing, crying, or with a nasty comment. In res­pect thereof, it appears only as normal that her deeds and interactions are characterised by ups and downs. In the 1993 guidebook Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, author John Gray likens a woman to a wave, describing the process of her feelings regularly rising and falling. For several weeks, she may feel very happy and loving. Then, suddenly, after her mood reaches its peak, she begins to have negative stimuli (accompanied by sentiments of emptiness, worry, unfulfilled needs, hopelessness, loneliness, etc.). While she sinks into darkness and a diffused mood, she partly loses her compassion for others as well as her ability to give love. Once she has hit rock bottom, her condition automatically shifts again and she feels good about herself again.[1]

Whether women like it or not, it is particularly easy for men to blame these mood swings on the strong hormonal fluctuations within the bodies and brains of the former. The ebb and flow take place according to a biologically predefined sequence of phases: The menstrual cycle. Each monthly[2] series can be divided into four distinct epi­sodes:

  • Episode I – A New Soak: This (or the) period (called the follicular phase), which by definition coincides with the beginning of the menstrual cycle, starts on the first day of the menstrual bleeding. It usually lasts 3 to 5 days, during which the vagina releases between 10 and 80 millilitres (i.e., 4 to 6 tablespoons) of menstrual fluid, a reddish-brown liquid containing blood, vaginal secretions, as well as other tissues.[3] As most women notice the breaking down and shedding of the uterine lining during menstruation, they have to live with a permanent sensation of wetness. This may provoke a certain feeling of unease and incon­venience around that time, although modern-day sanitary pads or tampons are already doing a good job at alleviating such malaise. With progesterone and oestrogen levels at their lowest, the female mood can be regarded as quite negative, but at least relatively stable.
  • Episode II – The Desire Strikes Back: The second part of the follicular phase kicks in as soon as the bleeding has stopped. It is also known as the “proli­fe­rative” phase, indicating the point when the lining of the uterus is growing and thickening (or proli­ferating) again, in preparation for a possible pregnancy. Follicles in the ovaries begin to ripen, oozing more and more oestrogens into the woman’s bloodstream. As this hor­mone is in charge of emotional receptiveness, these increasing doses of oestrogen contribute to the improvement of her well-being, mood and to the acceleration of her sex drive[4]. Not only is she more happy and positive; it is also around this time that she attains maximum fertility. She is more likely to dress provocatively, initiate sex, commit adultery, or have sexual fantasies than in any other stage of her menstrual cycle.[5]
  • Episode III – Attack of the Hormones: The proliferative phase ends with the sharp surge of luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) [6] The former causes the most mature follicle to burst open, relea­sing an egg into one of the fallopian tubes (ovulation). From there, the ovum tra­vels down to the uterus. For women with a 28-day cycle, this phase should take place on day 14, i.e., exactly at mid-cycle, and typically lasts 16 to 32 hours. Fer­ti­lisation of the egg may happen up to 12 hours after its release. Right after ovu­lation, basal body temperature rises and stays higher by about .2 to .3 degrees Cel­sius until a few days before the next menstruation.[7] Around the time of ovu­lation, some women may experience a dull pain in their lower abdomen, spe­ci­fi­cally on the same side as the ovary that just provided the egg. This sen­sation, medi­cally termed as “mittelschmerz” (literally: middle pain), may last for a few minutes to a few hours.[8] It can be accompanied by cramps, bloating or other forms of irritation. Yet, thanks to the soup of oestrogen the female hypothalamus is swimming in at that moment, women are generally quite cheerful and amiable, displaying jolliness and good temper.
  • Episode IV – The Random Menace: Ovulation marks the beginning of the last part of the menstrual cycle, the luteal phase. While LH and FSH levels decrease, the closing of the ruptured follicle induces the formation of a temporary structure, the corpus luteum that has the function to prepare the uterus should impregnation occur. The presence of the corpus luteum induces the production of progesterone (the gestation hormone), which combined with the high level of oestrogen causes the uterine lining to thicken even more, ballooning with fluids and other substan­ces to nourish a poten­tial foetus. In case the egg is fecundated, a new hormone (human chorionic gonado­tropin) is added to the cocktail, whose role it is to maintain the corpus luteum.[9] Or else, i.e., if fertilisation has not taken place, the corpus luteum degene­rates, no longer producing progesterone, and after another 14 days (normally), the new menstrual cycle can begin. While progesterone is still squirting from the ovaries, brains are functioning in a sedated mode, while women grow gradually more irritable and slow, losing part of their alertness and focus. However, “in the last few days of the men­strual cycle, when progesterone collapses, this calming effect is abruptly withdrawn, leaving the brain momen­tarily upset, stressed, and irritable. […] Many women say they cry more easily and often feel out of sorts, stressed, aggressive, negative, hos­tile, or even hopeless and depressed right before their periods begin.”[10] This collec­tion of physical and emotional symptoms are commonly summa­rised under the acro­nyms PMS (pre­menstrual syndrome) and PMT (premenstrual tension). In more se­vere cases, the brutal withdrawal of the female hormones progesterone and oestro­gen may lead to even more discomforting sensations or pains, including the follo­wing: Breast tenderness or swelling, heart palpitations, headaches, joint or muscle pain, swol­len face, chronic fatigue, apathy, insomnia, hypersomnia, difficulty con­centrating, sadness, despair, tension, anxiety, panic attacks, mood swings, bouts of uncon­trollable crying, increased intense sensitivity to rejection or criticism, increased need for emotional closeness, feelings of being out of control, binge eating, food cravings, etc.[11]

Although the idea of mood swings and the regular discharge of a bloody substance may inspire contempt and repulsion among many men, they should be aware of the inconvenience that females have to endure month after month. The menstrual cycle is no cakewalk. Having one’s period – that’s one small leak for women, one giant schlep for womankind.

Related proverbs and citations:

女心と秋の空 (Japanese proverb)

Onna-gokoro to aki no sora

A woman’s heart and the autumn sky.

A woman’s heart is as changeable as the weather in autumn.



Notes

[1]    Gray (1993), chapter 7

[2]    Though the length and regularity of a menstrual cycle may vary, the average duration of a complete menstrual cycle is 28 days. Healthy cycles usually run from 25 to 36 days.

[3]    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menstruation

[4]    See chapters 1 “Men are like mud, women are like water” and 9 “The path to a woman’s heart passes through her vagina”.

[5]    Campbell (2002), p. 48

[6]    Many contraceptive pills work by preventing this LH upsurge, thus impeding the egg’s release.

[7]    Checking the increase in temperature is a common test to estimate whether or not ovulation has occurred.

[8] http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/womens_health_issues/biology_of_the_female_reproductive_system/ menstrual_cycle.html

[9]    By the way, the most modern pregnancy tests are designed to detect an increase in the human chorionic gonadotropin level.

[10]  Brizendine (2006), p. 45

[11]  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premenstrual_dysphoric_disorder

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