We all recognise the various rhythms and cycles of nature: the daily orbit round the sun; the predictable wheel of the seasons; the eternal loop of life and death and the waxing and waning of the moon. They shape and guide our routines from the daily voyage through wakefulness to sleep and back again to the miracle of planting a tiny seed in spring and harvest its fruit in autumn.
Woe betide the farmer who fails to work with the wheel of the seasons or the sailor with no regard for the tides.
Studies have shown that there are more accidents on the road and in the workplace when the clocks go forward. The week following daylight saving also sees a rise in heart attacks. Anyone who’s taking a long-haul flight will have experienced the symptoms of jet lag - our body’s protest at having its regular rhythms disrupted.
Menstruation is as vital a sign of good health as your pulse, your temperature or your breath. It relies on the sequential rise and fall of a variety of hormones throughout the month. Each of these hormones has a distinct personality, heralding shifts in our abilities, moods and desires. Testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone are just a few of the key players.
Testosterone – which despite rumours to the contrary is not just a male hormone – brings us conviction, confidence and courage. At its peaks, we can feel hornier and more orgasmic.
Oestrogen boosts our energy and sharpens our brain function. In balanced doses, it’s a mood enhancer and can make us feel more sociable. It even makes us more attractive: plumping our tissues and making our features more symmetrical.
Progesterone is a more homely, inward hormone. It can call for a more introspective, tranquil setting, driving us to spend quiet time with loved ones. Out of balance, it can be a real passion killer and might make you feel down and anxious.
The seismic shifts in our hormonal profile every month and throughout our life spans are carefully designed to support us in our reproductive role. At times, they domesticate us, soothing us like the mother’s little helpers of the natural world. They encourage us to nurture and care for our families (or friends, colleagues and projects) and dosing us up for much of the month to make that easier (you may well recognise the withdrawal effects of these drugs as their levels drop dramatically in the lead up to your period, lifting the rose tinted veil on your life – an opportunity to check in). So huge are the hormonal tides in women’s bodies that medical science has largely avoided including us in its studies. Caroline Criado Perez, in her book ‘Invisible Women, exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ says ‘Female bodies (both the human and animal variety) are, it is argued, too complex, too variable, too costly to be tested on.’ Yet what allowance is made for these shifts in the day to day lives of women and what are the costs of ignoring our intrinsic tempo.
Premenstrual Syndrome is the catch all term for a huge array of symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle. According to Perez’ figures, it affects 90% of women to some degree, yet she claims grants are denied to researchers ‘on the basis that ‘PMS does not actually exist’’
An inexperienced sailor is likely to capsize their boat in high winds but place someone with experience and understanding of the winds and tides at the helm and they will gather speed. The consequences of not understanding our inner tempo can be debilitating for women, but how can we attune to our cycle and harness our inherent power?
Our menstrual cycle is carefully designed to allow us to access, at some point every month, all the women we need to be! It can be a map of self-care as well as a planning tool. One way of understanding the cycle is to look at each stage as the female archetype that best exemplifies our emotions, drives, skills and abilities at that time.
The Wise Woman:
During our bleed (from day 1 of our cycle), all of our hormones are at their lowest ebb. You can feel tired, both physically and mentally. You might feel quite inward. Operating in the world at this time can feel challenging but, with the fog of hormones lifted, your intuition and creativity are strong. This is a time for renewal, rest and regeneration. A time to retreat from the world in any way you can. Letting go of responsibility (wherever possible) and allowing yourself to do the things that feed your soul. It is during this time that you might come up with wonderful ideas that you can carry out later in the month.
Ripening follicles in the ovary encourage oestrogen levels to rise towards the end of our bleed. Testosterone jumps in and you begin to feel more energetic and sociable. You might feel momentum building, finding yourself keen to emerge to explore to ideas. This particular hormonal concoction can make us curious and playful, a little naïve even. Energy is outward. We may well be looking for company.
As oestrogen and testosterone rise to peak levels for ovulation, progesterone joins the party. With growing confidence and self-assurance, you are at your most gregarious. Having tested your ideas in spring, you can now choose which ones to run with and you have the energy to see them through. It’s a time of outward glory, when the multi-tasking we women are famous for is really possible. This is the time to give your all. You are magnetic and attractive you have plenty of energy and love to share. Go easy though – keep some of that energy for yourself.
The Wild Woman:
If pregnancy doesn’t occur, our progesterone and oestrogen levels fall dramatically. Testosterone levels are erratic so energy and sex-drive are unpredictable – all of which can be quite unsettling. This infamous stage of our cycle is often misunderstood. Our irritability and the emergence of our inner critic are often a backlash from previous weeks. Perhaps you were blown off course and used your energies for others rather than your own projects? Maybe you didn’t manage to get the rest you needed? However uncomfortable, this part of the cycle is a valuable check in, a progress report. It challenges you to recognise needs that you aren’t meeting, gifts that are languishing in the shadows or feelings you may have repressed. This is a time for editing and letting go of that which no longer serves you. Beware of acting too hastily at this time though, sometimes our inner critic can sometimes be a little rash.
Keeping a journal or keeping track of your emotions and physical changes on a chart can be a great way of working out your own unique cycle and the effect that those hormonal cocktails have on you. It will allow you to navigate through and harness the energies of your body’s rhythms. Acknowledging and rectifying the neglect of a particular stage of your cycle (not taking time to rest is, by far, the most common) can result in powerful and positive shifts in your physical and emotional experience of living in a female body.