THE NEW MOOD
Modern technology is removing the stigma of being hormonal – and it’s having a positive effect
LAST MONTH, I COULDN’T STOP CRYING. Worse than that, I didn’t know why. Even worse, I was fine four hours later. I wish I could say this was out of character, but it’s the reason I’ve forked out for therapy over the past year and why I’ve spent my entire twenties terrified of my own moods. And it’s not the moods themselves that are terrifying – if you’ve ever taken something way too personally at work and ended up having an embarrassed sob in the loos, then you know what I’m talking about: it’s the fluctuations, and not being able to predict or control them.
I know this is almost certainly down to my hormones but, worryingly, I don’t actually know what a hormone is. Googled definitions tell me ‘hormones are chemical substances that help to regulate processes in the body’, but how is it affecting my mood, exactly? Science doesn’t help much, either, with research telling me decreased levels of oestrogen (the primary female sex hormone) can lead to panic attacks, and 85 per cent of women experience mood changes in the run-up to their period (among many other stats), but not exactly why this is happening. Or what moods the average, neurotypical woman should expect during her monthly cycle. Not knowing what’s going on in my body really freaks me out – and, it turns out, I’m not alone.
Hormonal contraceptive usage dropped 13 per cent between 2005 and 2015*, showing a collective desire to regain control of our bodies. Books such as The New York Times’ bestselling The Hormone Cure and US cult favourite Wild Power: Discover The Magic of Your Menstrual Cycle and Awaken the Feminine Path to Power are encouraging us to embrace the fluctuations of our menstrual cycles. Meanwhile, websites such as Menstrual Matters and We Are Moody are packed with research and information written in an accessible way. In fact I was recently invited to the launch of a range of nail varnishes aiming to balance my hormones through the use of different colours. Essentially, everyone is obsessed with hormones right now.
Eleanor Morgan, a journalist retraining as a psychologist who is currently writing a book on hormones and moods called Hormonal, believes this obsession is engrained in our history. And it’s true: for hundreds of years, women were thrown in asylums for ‘hysteria’ and our culture still seems to believe that shifts in emotion are a sign of weakness. ‘Millennia of women before us have been oppressed because of their biology, and I think the result of that is we tend to pathologise the slightest change in our mood in case it means we are, or are perceived as being, unstable or less capable,’ says Morgan.
While the conversation around mental health has, thankfully, become more open, we tend not to talk about our moods in terms of hormones. ‘While people do obviously suffer from mental health problems, the diagnosis boundaries between mental health and hormone-based mood swings are quite blurred,’ says Morgan. Is it possible some of us are experiencing hormonal mood changes and a lack of knowledge about them is getting us down?
Most women I know have struggled with mental health problems. We launch full-scale self assessments every time we aren’t, say, as resilient as we feel we should be. One day I’ll get edits on a piece I’ve written
GONE ARE THE DAYS OF LONELY CRIES IN BATHROOM STALLS – NOW, PERIOD-TRACKING APPS, CHART-TOPPING BOOKS AND MYTH-BUSTING BLOGS ARE REMOVING THE STIGMA OF BEING HORMONAL. SO LET THOSE EMOTIONS OUT, SAYS STEVIE MARTIN
and make the amends, no problem. Another day, the same thing will happen and I’ll have a little cry and wonder whether I’m sane. ‘For every single woman who is menstruating, things are in flux all the time. Some women are more sensitive to the fluctuations than others, but variation and fluctuation in mood are normal,’ Morgan says. ‘Men have hormones, too, but in general they’re not as rhythmic or as changeable as ours.’
So how can we hope to navigate them? Amy Thomson, founder of We Are Moody, believes it’s all about knowledge. Alongside the website, she will be launching a new app, Moody-U, in September, which aims to provide a daily mood prediction based not only on each woman’s cycle, but also on their location, age, weather and a host of up-to-date endocrinological research. ‘The key thing for us is being able to demonstrate a pattern,’ explains Thomson. ‘If you can see the patterns retrospectively and forecast ahead, then it gives you the knowledge to make better decisions. The more you log, the more accurate it becomes to your personal pattern and cycle, and the more you understand yourself.’
Finding such patterns has been key to professor of psychology Martie Haselton’s book Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones. In her book she explores how estrus, the female fertility cycle, seems to affect our decision-making, our taste in the opposite sex, and even when we want to go out clubbing.
‘If a woman wants to find a relationship partner for the long-term, the best time might not be at high fertility, but during the extended-sexuality part of her cycle (when you are least fertile), when she prioritises qualities related to being a good partner and co-parent,’ she says. ‘If she’s after an exciting sexual encounter, we have found women want to go to clubs and parties where they might meet someone on more fertile days of the cycle.’
Don’t worry: on your fertile days, you’re not going to find yourself zombie-walking to the nearest club – your mood is affected by so many other factors other than hormones, which means these predictions should be seen as an indicator rather than a prophecy. And of course it changes from woman to woman, which is why Moody-U’s all-female team of data analysts, researchers and coders have enabled its app’s predictive function to increase in accuracy with every input. Like a horoscope, but far more personal. And, you know, real.
This knowledge could also, on a smaller scale, give us something we haven’t had for a long time: freedom. I can only talk from personal experi- ence, but I get more upset about the fact I’ve been upset than I was at the original thing that upset me (and now a moment of silence for my poor boyfriend). It’s liberating to think the subsequent therapy sessions don’t necessarily mean I’m ill, but a woman sensitive to hormone fluctuation.
There are no right answers – not even from scientific experts – but we can all agree that we need to keep talking. The only reason the stigma continues is because we’re hiding our mood fluctuations: in toilets across the world (I refuse to believe I’m the only one doing this) and perhaps even under the guise of bad mental health. I’m not saying you should always cry in public, or that you’re lying about having anxiety, but there’s so much to be gained by talking and not being so quick to pathologise.
And who knows: as interest grows, we could find out some really cool stuff. Case in point: Moody-U has an opt-in feature where your data can be pooled anonymously to help the company determine large-scale patterns in its users’ moods. For the first time, we could see how in synch with each other our mood fluctuations really are. And maybe just feel a little less alone. For the cynics out there, this might ring data-usage alarm bells, but Thomson is keen to stress the importance of a moral approach: ‘Ethical data – when users have transparency on how and when their data is used – is essential for the future of tech,’ she says, which essentially means having the power to opt in or out, making decisions based on clear, transparent information.
There’s room for fun stuff, too: apps such as My Moontime have trackers to see whether there’s any correlation between our moods and the moon. Understandably, there’s little research done in this area because funding is scarce and moon moods aren’t a priority, meaning it’s down to us to work out whether there are any patterns. But why not? We know so little that, at this point, anything is possible!
‘I think in 10 years’ time, things will look very different,’ muses Morgan. ‘And the way technology is heading, I predict we’re going to be more in tune with ourselves than ever before. Obviously there is a risk that we may pathologise ourselves more, and over-predict – like being convinced you’ll be livid a week on Tuesday – but the key is to realise these things are never going to be completely right.’
Regardless of accuracy, the point is we can stop beating ourselves up. Sure, predicting a potential incoming spat of crying might help me feel more prepared. But, more importantly, if one does creep up unannounced – despite all my apps and books and diagrams – I’ll be able to let it ride, take a breath and get on with my day. Now that’s empowering.