THE NEW MOOD

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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.

ELLE AU­GUST

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