Women have long fought against being labelled as moody. But New York psychiatrist Julie Holland believes the description fits.
Women, she argues, are indeed more sensitive, intuitive and emotional. And instead of suppressing their feelings, she thinks women would be better off if they tuned into them.
In her new book, Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You're Taking, the Sleep You're Missing, the Sex You're Not Having and What's Really Making You Crazy, Holland argues that women aren't meant to be stoic and static. She says the characteristics for which women are often accused of being "hysterical" are not only natural, they're essential to women's physical, emotional and mental well-being.
Too often, however, women turn to psychiatric drugs to achieve emotional stability, even when medication is not clinically needed, Holland says. (According to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report, Canada had the third-highest level of consumption of antidepressants in 2011 among 23 member countries, not including the United States.)
It may seem retrograde to suggest women are inherently temperamental. But in a recent phone interview, Holland explained there are advantages to being moody.
You say women are designed to be moody. Can you explain?
Women are biologically going to be a little smaller, a little weaker and they're going to have to have other assets to their survival. One of those assets is intuition and empathy, where we have a sense of how someone else is feeling or what their intentions are. In terms of our non-verbal babies, whether they're hungry or whether they're in pain, or our sometimes less-than-verbal mates, whether they have benevolent intent or whether they intend on leaving the family, there are a lot of advantages to being emotionally sensitive to the environment.
How does that compare with men?
I guess one thing I would like to say is it's never as cut and dried as "women are this way, and men are that way," and there are obviously plenty of men who are intuitive and empathetic. It may be that society has just shut down men's sensitivity, and perhaps men are just as sensitive to women. But they certainly aren't encouraged to be that way. And there are real biological differences.
What is the evolutionary advantage of having premenstrual syndrome?
When you're leading up to being fertile, the estrogen levels build along with serotonin. So the whole first half of the cycle, you're sort of easy and breezy and things don't bother you. And part of that design is that you're trying to attract and be attractive to a mate. What happens with PMS is you're no longer fertile, the egg is dead, it did not get fertilized and you are available to find another mate for the next cycle. It's a chance to be in touch with your dissatisfaction about what's wrong now and what needs to change for your next cycle.
Why do you suggest PMS may provide a more accurate barometer of how satisfied you are with your life?
There's two ways of looking at it. You could say the way you feel mid-cycle when everything is fine is the reality, or you could say the way you feel with your PMS when everything isn't fine is the reality. Or it may be something in between. What I definitely say to my patients is that the thoughts and feelings you are having during PMS are real, not delusional.
Christiane Northrup [a U.S. doctor and women's health expert] talks about thinking about it like low tide – when the water recedes, you can all of a sudden see there's all these shells and crabs and things on the sand. They've been there all along. So it's an uncovering. It's a chance to see things that are always there, but you're seeing them with a more critical eye.
You recommend that women plan their work and life tasks around the fluctuations of their menstrual cycle. Why?
First of all, there's the practical issues. You absolutely have a lower pain threshold when you're PMS-ing. So it's not a good time to go to the dentist or get a wax. Also when you have PMS, it's not the best time to go to your boss and ask how you're doing. There are times when you're mid-cycle when you're more stress-resilient and more confident. Those are times to have that talk.
If there are things that require you to be obsessive, like cleaning out your closets or planning a party, those are things that you would do more toward the PMS time when you will definitely have higher levels of being obsessive, when your serotonin levels are low.
How can crying be beneficial?
Tears tell you and everyone around you that something is very wrong and needs to be addressed. So it should be a signal that has you thinking, "What just happened? What upset me? Why did it upset me? What can I do about it?" But it also is a signal to the people around you that they have done something that is affecting you emotionally.
Our society frowns upon moodiness though …
Well, keep in mind that we're half of society and we can change society. What the world needs more of, in my opinion, is this receptive, sensitive, compassionate, empathic, connected energy. And if we, as women, have that within us, we owe it to ourselves and to the world to bring that to the foreground, fight for it and not have it be oppressed.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tips to control your mood:
Holland offers women the following tips on how to control their mood and hormones.
Rein in those tears
Crying is normal, but when it's inconvenient, Holland suggests thinking of rhyming words or counting backward by seven from 100 to force your brain to switch gears from emotional to rational activity.
Go off the pill to find Mr. Right
Do this for three or four cycles to make sure he's the one. Holland explains oral contraceptives can interfere with the way women process pheromones. Women on the pill tend to pick less masculine men and express lower levels of sexual satisfaction and attraction to their partners.
Harness your PMS
Write down everything that bothers you near the end of your menstrual cycle, and take action when you're in a sunnier disposition after your period ends. As Holland writes, "PMS is a time of psychological inventory, to take stock and make sure you are where you want to be in your life."