Let me preface this by saying that I am not a doctor, or in any way trained in or associated with any medical practices. I have tried my best to base this writing in fact, but it is still nothing more than my opinion based on what I believe to be facts.
What is PMS
PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome and occurs in women in the week prior to their period. Most women experience some premenstrual symptoms, but this is not necessarily indicative of a premenstrual syndrome. For a woman to have premenstrual syndrome, the symptoms must occur in a consistent pattern and to a degree that they interfere with normal life.
I do not believe that PMS is nearly as common as most people think. I believe the term is way overused, and I think that this overuse is harmful.
I am female, and I have never experienced anything I would consider to be a ‘premenstrual syndrome’. I have experienced premenstrual symptoms, but nothing to the extent that I don’t feel like myself for 1 out of every 4 weeks. I have also never observed any woman that I know exhibiting ‘life interfering’ symptoms 1 out of every 4 weeks.
I have seen women and men in my life use PMS as an explanation for emotions and behaviors that, to me as an outside observer, do not seem abnormal for that person. This casual excusing of normal emotions saddens and angers me, because I also see the results of those excuses: Women who don’t take responsibility for their bad behavior; men who undermine women by invalidating their emotions; women who feel at the mercy of their bodies. I believe that in most cases what people refer to when they refer to PMS is simply an excuse for inconvenient behavior, learned helplessness, hypochondria, or a type of negative placebo effect.
I understand that for some women PMS is real, and I am not seeking to minimize or dismiss their experience. However, I do think that PMS is used far too often to describe symptoms and dismiss behaviors that do not actually have anything to do with PMS. And I think this overuse diminishes the struggle that women who actually have PMS deal with.
Why the Myth is Bad
The overuse of the term PMS is harmful for several reasons. The most harmful reason is that it serves to undermine the perfectly valid emotions of women. Women’s problems are treated as ‘less real’ when they are perceived to be the product of PMS. Men and women alike can sweep inconvenient emotional responses under the PMS rug instead of dealing with the actual issues. I have seen this problem in action in real life, where women’s emotions are not taken seriously because they are just a ‘mood swing’. It can be extremely detrimental to a woman’s emotional well being.
Women are also susceptible to a learned form of helplessness when PMS is overused. When PMS can be used as socially acceptable excuse for behavior, there is less incentive for a woman to learn how to behave responsibly. She may feel absolved from the need to manage and regulate her own emotions and behavior during a PMS week. She then handicaps herself from learning to do so.
The overuse of the term PMS also encourages hypochondria. When PMS is used so ubiquitously to describe symptoms and behaviors it creates an expectation that most or all women have PMS. This expectation encourages women to believe that they have PMS, even when they do not. Like any hypochondriac, they believe they have a syndrome even when their symptoms are completely normal.
The power of the placebo effect also works in a negative way with the overuse of the term PMS. Like with any placebo effect, what a person believes will happen is more likely to happen. When a woman believes that she will experience PMS, she is more susceptible to experiencing PMS.
What to Do
Its simple. We need to stop referring to totally normal premenstrual symptoms as PMS. We need to stop assuming that every woman experiences PMS. We need to reserve the term PMS to refer to life affecting symptoms that only occur in a small number of women.