As a sex therapist who specialises in the needs of women, I see the direct consequence of the gaping hole in not only mainstream education, but research itself. Many of the women I work with have grown up believing that there is something wrong with them. The impact that this has on their lives is seriously detrimental, but the relief they experience when given the correct information seems to come quickly and easily.
Without thorough education we cannot develop self-awareness, and this affects our capacity for self-compassion. Sadly this means that many of us become stuck in a cycle where we feel disconnected, out of control and become resentful of our bodies, criticising them as if they’re a separate entity.
Differences are important. If intersectional feminism has taught us anything, it’s this. Those with female physiology are different to those with male physiology. It is when these differences are overlooked that inequality affects us the most. Living in a patriarchy means living in a system that categorises anything other than the male experience as abnormal, if not entirely wrong. This means that half of the population are trying to function within a life cycle that works against them.
Living in a patriarchy means living in a system that categorises anything other than the male experience as abnormal
The human body operates to the circadian rhythm. This is a 24 hour biological timekeeper which regulates bodily functions. However, people who menstruate have a second bodyclock: the infradian rhythm. In popular culture, the impact menstruation has on people’s lives is often trivialised rather than being recognised as having a huge impact on health and wellbeing.
The majority of research neglects female physiology and focuses on the circadian rhythm alone. The infradian rhythm impacts reproductive and stress response systems, immunity, the brain and metabolism. While free menstrual products and extra leave allowance are great for period positivity and equality, the ability to understand yourself and your unique hormone balance is the ultimate liberation. Throughout the menstrual cycle, our bodies and brains fluctuate constantly, so developing awareness of how you experience this is crucial for being able to recognise your needs and care for yourself.
Understanding your needs is the first step in practising autonomy, and keeping a menstrual cycle diary is a fantastic place to start. As mentioned, menstruation varies per person, but generally speaking it works to a 28 day cycle and moves through 4 stages:
Menstruation. The first day of your bleed is the first day of your cycle.
Follicular phase. This begins with your bleed but carries on until you ovulate which can be up to 2 weeks later. An increase in energy begins.
Ovulation. This is when fertility peaks due to increase in oestrogen.
Luteal phase. Progesterone levels rise which coincides with a drop in energy levels.
Thankfully we live in a context where many of us can choose what we want in terms of our reproduction, but our bodies are still motivated by procreation. You may know that you never want children, but your hormone levels aren’t designed to reflect your psychological choice. Whether you’re interested in pregnancy or not, tracking your cycle will benefit you in a multitude of ways. Rather than forcing yourself to stick to the same routine throughout the month, you’ll be able to design your own which reflects how your hormones dance. Choosing to operate to your infradian rhythm means you eat, exercise, work and connect with others relationally in ways that support your cycle.
Whether you’re interested in pregnancy or not, tracking your cycle will benefit you in a multitude of ways
To get you started on your voyage of discovery of your emotional and erotic rhythm, I’ll give a brief overview of what happens throughout a menstrual cycle and how this impacts behaviour.
As you bleed, blood flows along with emotions. During this time you crave comfort and it’s important to take a break from caring for others and turn this energy inward. Oestrogen and progesterone levels are low, meaning this is a time to prioritise rest. Slow movement, such as restorative yoga, is helpful for nourishing your body. This is a great opportunity to reflect on your life. What would you like more of, and what can you let go of?
During the follicular phase both progesterone and oestrogen begin to rise, bringing a sense of motivation, intelligence and creativity. This is the optimum time for trying new things as your energy turns outward as peak fertility approaches. Energy and libido levels increase, your body is cheering you on, “go get em tiger!”, and you feel confident and sexy. Your metabolism slows during this phase, but your vitality means it’s a good time to try fast-paced or strength focused exercise.
This continues as you move to ovulation. Libido peaks on the day of ovulation as this is when you’re most fertile. This is the time when productivity is at an all time high. You feel powerful, ready to get shit done and are up for a high-energy movement to channel this.
Ovulation passes and progesterone rises to its peak in the luteal phase. Your body requires a low-stress environment and activity, as well as tenderness. Cravings can kick in at this stage as your body conserves energy in preparation for your bleed. This is a time for gentle movement. Relationship issues and life challenges may reveal themselves during this time but refrain from taking action.
And then this rhythm begins again. Get started by keeping note of your physical and emotional symptoms from day one of your period.
Menstrual tracking is a fantastic method of attuning to your body, or a partner’s if you don’t menstruate. It’s a guaranteed way of improving relationships and having awareness of your overall health. Period positivity at its crux is knowing what’s regular for you, and developing new patterns on your terms.