Is PMS All in Our Heads?

The XX Factor
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.



Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor

Here’s Just How Far a Southern Woman May Have to Drive to Get an Abortion

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy

It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?


Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Watching Netflix in Bed. Hanging Bananas. Is There Anything These Hooks Can’t Solve?

The Procedural Rule That Could Prevent Gay Marriage From Reaching SCOTUS Again

  News & Politics
Oct. 20 2014 6:49 PM God’s Oligarch One of Vladimir Putin’s favorite businessmen wants to start an Orthodox Christian Fox News and return Russia to its glorious czarist past.
Oct. 20 2014 6:48 PM Apple: Still Enormously Profitable
Oct. 20 2014 3:16 PM The Catholic Church Is Changing, and Celibate Gays Are Leading the Way
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 6:32 PM Taylor Swift’s Pro-Gay “Welcome to New York” Takes Her Further Than Ever From Nashville 
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.