The death of PMS

<i></i>

News of the death of pre-menstrual syndrome came as a terrible shock.

It broke late last year. A death squad of Canadian academics did the deed - they published a review of 47 English-language studies of PMS (described as ''Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder'' by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, aka the bible of psychiatry).

For a start, most of the studies did not meet correct scientific criteria, the Canadians said. And of those that did, only 13 per cent reported an association between the pre-menstrual phase and a negative mood. The rest of the literature found either no mood association with any phase, or an association between negative mood and other phases of the cycle together with the pre-menstrual phase.

So the average woman was certainly more likely than not to be peeved, but there was no use pretending it was just a once-a-month thing, like a werewolf enjoying a lunar frolic.

Advertisement

The Canadians concluded there was no clear evidence of the existence of a ''specific pre-menstrual negative mood syndrome'' in the general population. ''This puzzlingly widespread belief needs challenging, as it perpetuates negative concepts linking female reproduction with negative emotionality,'' they wrote.

Lending more weight to the theory that it is all in women's minds, as opposed to their endocrinology, is the realisation that the concept of PMS is primarily a Western one.

According to Jane Ussher, professor of women's health psychology at the University of Western Sydney, there is no similar concept in India, China or Hong Kong. Perhaps Western women invented PMS, or had it invented for us. But instead of feeling liberated (what could be better than having a wrongful diagnosis retracted?), women have not taken well to having their PMS taken away.

As Ussher learnt, nobody wants to be stripped of a biological licence to be pissed off. As Fairfax Media reported just before Christmas, her article on the subject for the academic website The Conversation elicited angry reactions. Her colleagues and readers hated being told what they felt wasn't real. They hated having their experience ''denied''.

It's understandable. PMS allows women to be irritable and snappish. Hell, if a woman is suffering badly enough, she can even get away with being a monstrous bitch for a short window each month. Who wants to give that up? It's like having an emotional get-out clause, an invincibility cloak.

And if women don't have a biological reason to be moody, then they shouldn't get so moody, right? But then, if you can no longer blame biology - the modern, scientific version of destiny - then what are you supposed to do with the gnawing feelings of low-level rage?

If PMS is a myth, then women lose an excuse to be angry - that they're running late, that their partner left the washing up, that they're paid less than their male counterparts, that they carry an unequal load of domestic work, that they're subjected to unacceptable levels of violence, that the female toilet queues at music festivals are ridiculously long, that their haircuts cost more, and that they are expected to pretend the ageing process doesn't apply to them.

Ussher points to the parallels with the Victorian diagnosis of ''hysteria'' - a catch-all ailment that boxed-up women who were anxious, depressed, women who liked sex too much, women who were frigid and any woman who was somehow ''nervous''.

The medicalisation of women's sexuality goes much further back than the Victorians - the Greeks and Romans believed the womb travelled around the female body, a sort of bloodstream-bound hitchhiker-organ - and caused insanity.

But the Victorians were the ones serious about treating women's problems with medical interventions. The 2012 film Hysteria was a (very silly and bad) fictionalised account of a Victorian doctor who ''invented'' the vibrator as a way of inducing ''paroxysm'' to treat nervous disorders blamed on female-ness.

Victorian diagnoses of hysteria fell out of favour with the advent of the discipline of psychology, and also as society liberalised.

Of course, with 21st century eyes, we can see that it is no wonder middle- and upper-class Victorian women were depressed and anxious - they were physically confined to home and expected to adhere to stringent standards of moral behaviour. If they trangressed, the social sanctions were harsh and irreversible.

Perhaps future generations will look back on PMS and revise it in a similar way, within the context of our times. Contemporary women face a great deal of stress as they manage work and family life. Much of it they internalise. It's little wonder they get the grumps from time to time.

Women may have lost the excuse of PMS, but perhaps they have gained a different kind of freedom - to examine the true causes for their anger.

Or just accept it as a normal, non-pathological part of their lives.

Turns out women just have feelings.

No cure available.

9 comments

  • This just means women now have to justify their over dramatic anger to things with real reasons for their cause. Equal to what men have to do.

    Commenter
    Dean
    Date and time
    January 15, 2013, 8:58AM
    • There's a something something biology joke in there somewhere...

      Commenter
      Hurrow
      Date and time
      January 15, 2013, 10:19AM
      • @Dean - also means males now can't blame a fictitious syndrome on a woman's real anger about something stupid a male did.

        Commenter
        auntypizza
        Location
        Geelong
        Date and time
        January 15, 2013, 12:21PM
        • Umm, it's real. But i found it had nothing on the menopause version. I notice no mention is made of pain/nausea ... I suppose that is easier to prove as sometimes writhing, groaning and even throwing up is observed. Denying what some women experience isn't feminism folks. it's bullshit.

          Commenter
          Noseur
          Location
          Brisbane
          Date and time
          January 15, 2013, 12:42PM
          • There's no "syndrome" - yes, I get pain (not nauseau) - but I've never experienced these "mood swings" or anything else out of the ordinary. The monthly pain is normal and shouldn't be labelled. One aspirin gets rid of the pain (thank god) !

            Commenter
            auntypizza
            Location
            Geelong
            Date and time
            January 15, 2013, 1:00PM
        • Far from using it as an excuse to became an uber-bitch, I just find it to be an extremely unpleasant experience that leaves me more emotional for 24 hours than usual (along with physical symptoms) and which I could well do without.
          It's a burden, not a licence and I don't want a carte - blanche, just an understanding that I am affected by physiological changes that impact me in a number of ways. Even though I do get that understanding, I still feel embarrassed and apologise when I get short - tempered with my nearest and dearest.
          As someone with an extremely irregular cycle, it is also an excellent, 100% accurate early warning system, so not sure how that works if it's all supposedly in my head.

          Commenter
          Ouch
          Location
          PMSville
          Date and time
          January 15, 2013, 3:11PM
          • I get SHOCKING PMS, but not specifically associated with a negative mood. Becoming overly emotional does not necessary mean you are experiencing negative moods. Watching cute animals clips while PMS'ing may make me inexplicably weepy but is this 'negative'? My terrible PMS-related insomnia is certainly real - but is no sleep, scientifically, a negative state? Pains that leave me immobile are physical sensations, but is that technically a negative state? I think these scientific reviews have very narrow definitions of negativity (finishing my PhD myself & writing peer-reviewed experiments of my own I have more than a passing knowledge in what's involved).
            Some women get PMS, the end!

            Commenter
            Baddog
            Date and time
            January 15, 2013, 9:04PM
            • PMS and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder are not the same thing. There is a plethora of journal articles that support the existence of PMS including in Asian countries.

              Commenter
              Howaboutactualscience
              Date and time
              January 15, 2013, 10:10PM
              • I'm a bloke who likes beer, women, cricket, rugby, beer and stuff. See, I'm a bloke. But I get the sh**'s on what seems like a regular basis, why, I don't know but I just put it down to being a dick. My wife is a beautiful, positive, Aussie girl, mid-30s - I'm truly blessed on that front. We have 2 kids. Honestly, she has never had the sh**'s on a regular cycle, although I'm sure she has downturns. So maybe she is just manning up, girls? I know she feels pain as I saw the brats pop out. Or is she just an awesome girl? Either way, she is better than me and better than lots of these PMS-excusers - go round it, girl/man up. It's not a syndrome. It's a cycle, maybe the moon is actually to blame?

                Commenter
                neil
                Location
                Sydney
                Date and time
                January 15, 2013, 11:48PM
                Comments are now closed