When you think of the menstrual cycle, trauma is probably not something that immediately comes to mind. However, unresolved trauma may have major effects on how you experience your menstrual cycle. The residues of trauma may influence your hormonal health and may create repeating emotional patterns in your cycle that at times can be quite difficult to deal with, thus stopping you from feeling at ease with your cycle. In this article, I will take a closer look at the relationship between trauma and the emotional world of the menstrual cycle.
First, lets talk about trauma. Trauma is different from conditioning. Whereas conditioning shapes the way you perceive yourself and the world, for example, how you feel about having a menstrual cycle, trauma occurs after one or many ongoing experiences that were too overwhelming to feel at the time and impossible to make sense of it in a meaningful way. Trauma, like many things in life, can present it many ways and can have different causes and effects. For example, there is physical trauma, which can result from an accident, surgery or birth, shock trauma or intergenerational trauma, developmental trauma, which often includes attachment trauma, collective trauma and secondary traumatization.
How to recognize trauma
In this article, I primarily focus on developmental trauma, which roots lie in childhood and can cause certain areas of life to feel more difficult than others. Often people don’t even know that they have experienced trauma because some of the personality traits that can be developed as a result of the traumatic experience are normalized and celebrated in Western society. Being highly self-sufficient and to be on the go all the time are two great examples. The effects of trauma differ from person to person and depend on the life circumstances the person was in at the time, and how often and for how long the highly overwhelming situation occurred. An overwhelming situation can be, for example, losing a parent through divorce or death or emotional or physical abuse. Often times, however, developmental trauma happens quietly in family dynamics that lead to a child feeling unseen, uprooted, emotionally isolated and/or unloveable.
The sensations and feelings that are tied to a traumatic experience are buried deep in the subconscious, safely protected by all sorts of stories a person tells herself about herself and the world, by adaptive responses, by harsh, critical voices against oneself and others, and by the body. The body plays a major role in keeping the traumatic experience in check by tensing up, breathing less profoundly, and becoming less open to experiencing life fully. The purpose of protecting against those feelings that were too big, too painful to feel during the traumatic experience is not having to feel them again and above all, to avoid situations that could produce exactly these same sensations and feelings again. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to say yes instead of setting a limit, or to keep busy instead of resting, or to procrastinate instead of showing the world who you really are. There are many ways of how keeping yourself safe can show up in your life. Knowing what makes you feel safe can be a great resource to have, even though that resource might be to „procrastinate“ for a little while.
The window of tolerance aka your comfort zone
Let’s talk a bit more in depth about the role of the body in processing trauma and the above-mentioned adaptive responses. Over time, the body, which houses your nervous system adapts to the experience of one or an ongoing overwhelming situation by shaping a comfort zone. Dan Siegel, one of the main contributors in the Psychosomatic world, called this comfort zone the “window of tolerance”. This window of tolerance is a shape-shifter, encompassing feelings that are safe to feel and sounding the alarm-bell when feelings that are not safe to feel are arising. What your window of tolerance perceives as safe is determined by the experiences you have had in your life and your nervous system response to the experiences.
Let me give you an example. For some people a loving relationship feels safe to be in. Having a meaningful relationship and all the feelings and beliefs about oneself that come with that lies within the window of tolerance. For others, this experience is terrifying and thus lies outside the window of tolerance. The fear of possibly being loved and seen as a lovable person causes so much stress that this person unconsciously will avoid this experience by choosing a partner that will match what she perceives as safe even though that is not what she desires. So, she may think that she is lovable and ready for the relationship she desires but her body doesn’t feel safe in that kind of relationship. There is a mismatch between the mind and the nervous system that navigates her emotional safety.
The four responses of the nervous system
As you can see, the body/nervous system-mind relationship is like an undercurrent that runs through your life and essentially through your daily cycle experience. There is a lot more to say about the alarm-bell of the window of tolerance and the amazing adaptive responses our nervous system has developed for us to keep us out of emotional trouble. For example, the nervous system has four ways to fend off possible unsafe situations. Under stress the nervous system can protect with the fight, flight, freeze and fawning/fitting-in response. Especially, the latter one is a response women grow up in as an adaptive response to living in a patriachal society. Smiling even though the comment someone just made hurt you. You don’t rock the boat by not sharing your real opinion. You forego your limits in order to keep the peace are a few examples.
Sadly, those adaptive responses come with a flip side. The four responses are super effective because they happen fast and are involuntarily, which means that you have absolutely no control over the reaction of your nervous system. However, your body is extremely wise and working for you even though it may at times not seem that way. Your body wants to keep you safe but your body also „keeps the score“, a term coined by Bessel Van der Kolk, another great contributor to the exploration of the body-mind-connection. Keeping the score means that your body keeps you safe but it comes with the price of a dampened connection with yourself. The body over time can feel like an armor keeping feelings and sensations safe inside and thwarting sensation and feelings off by using the adaptive nervous system responses. Gradually, the person may develop a fear of experiencing certain feelings on the inside, becoming more and more disconnected from her emotional world and true self and fearful of experiencing certain situations in her life.
So far, I have talked a lot about the effects of trauma on the ability to feel. Another aspect of trauma is the impaired ability to regulate stress. Feeling and stress go together. Think of a situation that provoked an intense feeling for you. What did that feel like in your body and what happened in your mind? This intense feeling may have had you go into a gloomy thought spiral that took some time coming out of. All of this is stressful for the body. Stress can be “positive” and “negative”. For example, a situation that triggers joy and a situation that triggers a feeling of shame. People with a large window of tolerance can modulate their stress. They can shift up from first gear to second to third, all the way up to the fifth and down again without the window of tolerance raising an alarm and without the nervous system responding in an adaptive way. So, this person would be able to fully experience the sensation of joy in her body and open her up to feeling shame. For people with a smaller window of tolerance, the gears between first and fifth are often missing, which can result in a feeling of overwhelm. The desire to feel joy fully might be surging and at the same time this desire may cause such fear, so that the body protects itself with one of the adaptive responses mentioned above. To top it all of, the mind usually punishes the failure of not being able to fully feel a certain feeling with a harsh story line.
Why resting can be challenging
Let’s tie in one last thing which is such a big part of having a menstrual cycle – the ability to rest. Housing unprocessed trauma in the body and keeping up with the adaptive responses is super stressful. Thus, a person living with unresolved trauma will get used to a higher level of stress in her system over time. Resting – being in a state of presence and relaxation in the body – can become a dangerous thing to do. In this state all sorts of feelings can arise that may be uncomfortable to be with. This leads to the nervous system being on alert even though the person may want to relax. The inability to truly rest can be quite taxing on the body and make the menstrual cycle experience particularly challenging.
So how does trauma affect the menstrual cycle then?
Your cycle not only reflects whether your body is in a healthy, rested and hormonally balanced state, but it also mirrors your window of tolerance. Every day you wake up to a slightly different emotional state of being. Basically, you are a different woman every day with changing needs because you are being pushed along hormonal shifts inside of you which in turn trigger different feeling states. Sometimes these are feeling states that you are comfortable with and other days super uncomfortable feelings come up for you that are hard to be with. The premenstrual phase has a particularly bad reputation because it can be a rollercoaster of feelings such as anger, fear and despair. The cycle is therefore the place where hormonal changes, nervous system responses, window of tolerance and feelings link up. All of these factors combined make up your emotional experience of your cycle.
The menstrual cycle can be divided into four phases and two halves. Each phase can bring out different qualities in a woman’s psyche and in her experience of herself. The two halves, on the other hand, represent an increase in energy in the first half and a decrease in energy in the second half. The first half is an invitation to experience expansion within yourself and the second half asks you to slow down, to drop in and to settle in with yourself. It is quite similar to the feeling of taking a breath in and out again. This rise and decrease of energy can be challenging for the nervous system. For example, an increase in energy can trigger a feeling of joy or limitless possibilities. However, when the nervous system cannot hold these emotional states because joy and the feeling of limitless possibilities could lead to negative consequences, these feelings are suppressed. Similarly, the nervous system can respond in the second half of the cycle.
Before I describe below how emotional patterns can show up in each phase of the cycle, take a moment and reflect on which half of the cycle and phase of the cycle you feel most comfortable in and why.
Menstruation or the inner winter:
In this phase of the cycle, which can actually start before the onset of the bleed, the body wants to let go and no longer concern itself with the mundane tasks of everyday life. The body longs to become softer, drop, shed and allow the energy that is otherwise used for thinking to flow into the pelvis. This can have the effect of women feeling like they are in a fog and having a hard time verbalizing their thoughts clearly. The winter phase is therefore the cycle’s invitation to deeply rest, get nourished and to let go while trusting that the world continues to turn while you are on a mini-retreat from every day life.
It is precisely this dropping and softening that can cause fear. Shortly before the bleed, the subconscious senses that a change is approaching, that an inner softening wants to happen. The familiar inner grounding comes undone. It may feel like a fall without safety net into the unknown. The fear of losing control can be particularly prominent at this point in the cycle. In order to maintain the supposed safety in form of control, the body tenses up, especially in the jaw, pelvis and head, which can often lead to cramps and migraines during the period. The fear of what could happen if a woman allows herself to descend into her inner world and to open up to her transcendental wisdom and the experience of feeling loved and held may seem too big at that moment. This time of the cycle gives access to immense inner guidance and power. But the nervous system needs to be ready to hold the magnitude of the experience. The body and mind may look for distractions, such as social media, food or work during this time of the cycle to protect what is perceived as safe.
We also live in a culture that does not view rest as valuable. Especially, in this phase of the cycle, there can be an inner struggle between personal needs and things you think you need to get done. Learned beliefs about productivity and your ability to set boundaries without feeling guilty or unworthy play a big role here. Taking time out just for yourself to rest and replenish can cause major stress in the nervous system. Therefore, it may feel safer to ignore your needs in order to please others than showing up for your body’s needs during your bleed.
Pre-ovulation phase or the inner spring:
This phase is often perceived as the easiest phase of the cycle. The bleed is over, the body feels somehow refreshed. Finally, there is energy again to get on with life in the fast-paced rhythm society is structured in. The inner spring, however, is a place of innocence. It is the home of your inner girl. The inner girl that experienced your childhood. Depending on what your childhood was like for you, your inner girl shows up in this part of the cycle with needs that might be very different from your adult needs and wishes. Thus, this phase of the cycle may feel vulnerable and overwhelming without apparent reason.
This mismatch of needs can result in harsh, critical voices, collapsing or procrastinating, pushing over vulnerability or a feeling of loneliness, abandonment or shame. Slowing down, giving yourself as much structure as possible in your every day life and connecting with your inner girl can be very healing at this point.
Ovulation or the inner summer:
This cycle phase is known for the time of ovulation and all the wonderful things that can come with it. The desire for connection, pleasure, flirting, having fun, enjoying life and being seen in all your glory. At this point, the cycle invites women to really show up and share themselves with the world.
This is also the place in the cycle where female sexuality and personal power meet, two very rich and at the same time historically dangerous realms. Female sexuality and the expression of a woman’s personal power have been oppressed for centuries in many ways and are tightly woven into collective trauma. It is therefore not surprising if a woman is unable to fully express her being at this point in her cycle and instead keeps her sexual power dormant and shrinks rather than expands in her abilities. Minimizing and hiding is often unconsciously passed on from mother to daughter with the good intention that keeping yourself small and mute promises safety in the patriarchal system. However, this has devastating effects on the self-empowerment of daughters and entire generations of women. In addition, conveying limiting beliefs can sow deep mistrust between women, which in turn can lead to women believing they have to do everything themselves without the ability to ask for support. Over time this can lead to burnout, especially in the inner summer.
Premenstrual phase or the inner autumn:
As I already mentioned, this phase of the cycle has a bad rap in society and amongst women. In this phase women are said “to become difficult“ because they speak their mind or all of a sudden “lose it“ or are “touchy feely“. Lots of unexpressed feelings can show up in this phase that can be irritating for everyone involved – the woman being in this phase of her cycle and the people in her immediate environment. The irritation may show up in various ways, for example snappy comments, emotional manipulation, and arguing for the sake of arguing. Irritation can also arise out of the feeling of not being understood or met in a way that feels good.
This phase of the cycle falls into the second half of the cycle. There is less energy to keep the alarm-bell system and the armoring of the body running and the buffer for handling stress gets thinner, which means that more feelings can emerge. Especially the feelings that lie outside the window of tolerance. Those feelings can be dark spirals into old, emotional wounds. Similar to the inner spring, unresolved trauma from childhood can show up here, calling for a gentle and loving connection with yourself. At the same time, this phase of the cycle asks you to take responsibility for how you engage with yourself, others and life. This cycle phase invites you to take a closer look at your life, beliefs and more over adaptive responses in order to be able to harvest the fruits of the inner autumn. The fruits being emotional maturity, clarity, focus, discernment and wisdom.
Where to go from here
Each phase of the cycle has its unique qualities and challenges and each phase offers you a tremendous opportunity to deepen your connection with yourself. The window of tolerance is not set in stone. It can stretch in the same way your nervous system can learn to hold feelings that were not safe before. Cycle tracking can be an amazing resource to become more aware of the underlying emotional challenges you may encounter in your cycle. Turning gently and lovingly towards those feelings that bring up adaptive responses in you can be a real game changer in your cycle experience. Nervous system regulation and trauma-informed therapy can also be of great support.
The menstrual cycle is a great map for your self-empowerment, integrating emotional wounding and opening yourself up to wonderful, new experiences.
Woman: all people with a menstrual cycle
The inner seasons are founded by Red School (Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer)
About the author
Dörte holds a Masters in Somatic Counseling Psychology (Naropa University, USA) with a focus on body-oriented trauma therapy. She is a dance-movement therapist, menstrual cycle and pelvic embodiment coach and the author of the annual cycle journal “Weaving Cycles”. She has been working with women in her private practice since 2015 in Germany. In her work Dörte uses trauma-informed somatic psychotherapy to support women through all stages of womanhood. She feels passionate about supporting women in re-inhabiting their bodies and in re-connecting with the innate power that lies in a woman’s body.
For three years Dörte ran trauma-informed movement groups in Berlin with women who experienced sexual violence and assault and she published her knowledge on the topic of intergenerational trauma and sexual violence in an article in the journal Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy.