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Feeling Alone With PMS & PMDD: When No One Seems to Understand
by Dr. Daniel J. Heller
Every day at PMS Comfort we get letters from women who are struggling with PMS symptoms and PMDD symptoms. One of the common threads that runs through their messages is their feeling that no one understands what they’re going through—not their spouse, boyfriend, or significant other; not their doctor; not their family; not even their friends—and it makes them feel isolated, alone, and lonely. Just recently, Ellen (we’ve changed her name) wrote to tell us:
"Any little thing can set me off and I can start becoming really depressed. I really feel like I am alone and no one really understands what I go through. And it doesn't help that every doctor that I have talked to only says that I am depressed and need to take depression medication. Which I did, at one point, and that just made everything worse."
Unfortunately, it can be hard for people who’ve never experienced PMS symptoms and PMDD symptoms to understand the changes in moods, feelings, and behaviors that are caused by hormonal changes before the period. Since PMS and PMDD are partly caused, and certainly made worse, by stress, the feeling that others don’t understand, or even worse, that they suspect you are faking it, makes the symptoms and the feeling of being alone and feeling lonely that much worse.
When others misunderstand, or simply don’t understand, PMS and PMDD they are doing something that is quite common. It is human nature to think that everyone else experiences life and the world more or less as we do, and this can make it difficult to relate to others’ problems and troubles unless we have experienced them ourselves. When we feel well and fine, it can be hard to fathom that someone else doesn’t feel that way. That is doubly so when people who may never have struggled with anxiety, depression, and mood swings—not to mention cramps, bloating, and tender breasts—are asked to understand and be sympathetic to what you’re going through. Even though some men, some doctors, and some friends and family can be empathetic and compassionate, women suffering from PMS and PMDD often end up feeling alone and misunderstood.
Another woman wrote to us with this familiar story:
"How do I get my doctor to believe that my symptoms could be PMDD? I took the PMS Comfort quiz and scored a 99. I have been to several doctors over the years trying to find help with my tiredness, anxiety, mood swings, and what I thought was just bad PMS. My OB-GYN told me that we just have to 'deal with life' and that 'life’s not perfect for anybody'."
Doctors should know better than talk down to their patients this way. Ideally, every doctor would listen to their patients with an open mind, and treat everyone with compassion. But as many people have experienced at one time or another, this is not always the case. Doctors are people too, and they have plenty of personal and professional pressure in their lives, which may make it difficult to give you the undivided attention and caring demeanor you deserve (not that there is any excuse for a doctor not giving you their full attention, along with a caring attitude). For some reason, though, doctors and medicine as a whole too often tend not to take women with PMS & PMDD seriously, and to dismiss the very real suffering that women experience. In fact, one study found that women with PMS and PMDD visit as many as three health care practitioners in an average five-year period, and still rarely get the relief and understanding they were seeking.
Another study compared the way doctors diagnose and treat PMS and PMDD in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada, and found that in all five countries, relatively few doctors even diagnosed their patients with PMS or PMDD, even when their patients had the qualifying symptoms for these conditions.
It is only natural that when you’re not feeling well, you turn to the people who are closest to you, and whom you have tried to support when they’ve needed it. So it can come as a rude awakening when loved ones become frustrated with you because yet another month rolls around when you have days or weeks of not feeling like yourself, of not wanting to do fun things, and of not being as patient or kind as you’d like. And, if you’re like most women we’ve talked to, you regret this kind of behavior and feel guilty about it. It’s certainly not anything you’re choosing to do.
We do get letters and calls from concerned spouses, boyfriends, fiancées, mothers, and other worried loved ones, asking what can be done about PMS and PMDD, as well as how to preserve a relationship that may be bursting at the seams from the difficulty of managing unpredictable moods and irrational outbursts. So just as you may struggle with PMS symptoms and PMDD symptoms, the people in your life often struggle with how to help you, and how to make things work when that isn’t always easy to do.
One complicating factor in this whole picture is cultural differences. Some conservative and traditional cultures frown on expressing certain kinds of emotions, and perhaps especially by women expressing such feelings. In those settings, it is acceptable to admit physical pain such as headaches, cramps, fatigue, and aches and pains, but much less so to acknowledge the PMS emotions like depression, anxiety, mood swings, and anger. Many women, though, who are aware of mostly physical symptoms, do have emotional symptoms as well, but within their cultural and social situation it may not be acceptable to talk about those feelings. This may result in even more isolation, feeling lonely, stress, and even more feelings of being misunderstood.
PMS and PMDD are real, and your suffering is real. There are those who’d have you believe that it’s all in your head, or that you just need to toughen up, or that this ordeal is a woman’s lot in life. But just because someone doesn’t understand what you’re going through, or doesn’t have empathy for you, does not mean that what you feel and experience isn’t legitimate or isn’t real. Women with PMS and PMDD have historically been susceptible to gaslighting, so we hope you won’t doubt yourself when others do.