Is PMS All in Our Heads?

What Women Really Think
May 21 2013 3:14 PM

Is PMS All in Our Heads?

grumpy woman
I'll give you a culture-bound condition.

Photo by FlexDreams/Shutterstock

In all the controversy over the new DSM-5, it was inevitable that a long-standing fight over premenstrual syndrome would be revived. Eighty-five percent of women claim to have suffered from this disorder, but repeated research shows there's actually no relationship between daily moods and shifting monthly hormone levels. The debate is nothing new. In her classic 1993 feminist text The Mismeasure of WomanCarol Tavris argued that the idea of PMS persists because it gives women an excuse to express anger and irritation in a culture that expects them to be unendingly cheerful and pleasant. (It also panders to the belief that women are irrational victims of their own hormones.) Being able to blame your socially incorrect emotions on chemical shifts is intoxicating: Tavris showed that even when confronted with evidence that menstruation doesn't affect mood, "Many women are highly resistant to the evidence that their beliefs and expectations about PMS might be influencing their symptoms."

But PMS is increasingly understood as a "culture-bound syndrome," a disease of societal expectations, not biological influences. Psychologist Joan Chrisler spelled it out bluntly in 2002: "It's convenient for women to use this … . The discourse is me, not me, my real self, my PMS self. It allows you to hold onto a view of yourself as a good mother who doesn't lose her temper."

Culture-bound syndromes can vary wildly, and some of them are really weird to outsiders. Parts of West and Central Africa have epidemics of men who believe that their penises have been stolen. As with PMS, the distress to the sufferer is entirely real, even though the empirical evidence demonstrates that there isn't a biological source for the suffering. Other examples include the dhat syndrome in India, the Native American “ghost sickness” and the Korean “fire illness.” 


Of course, referring to problems like penis-stealing or PMS as culture-bound syndromes may well convince sufferers that they are being dismissed. But research shows that women who self-identify as suffering from PMS and who take active steps to reduce stress, avoid unnecessary conflict, and set aside time for themselves start to feel better. Hot baths and minimizing your contact with difficult people is a good idea, it seems, regardless of whether you blame your bad mood on impending menses or a lousy day at work.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.