Maybe you feel a little more bummed than usual. Maybe your breasts hurt like crazy. Or maybe you’re dealing with a breakout around your chin. If this sounds all too familiar, we get it: You might be dealing with premenstrual syndrome, a.k.a. PMS, unofficially known as The Worst. It can happen like clockwork in the week leading up to your period, and PMS symptoms may appear in different ways for people. But knowing what’s actually going down inside your body can go a long way in helping you feel better, stat. Here’s why it’s happening — and what you can do to deal with it.
What Is PMS?
Premenstrual syndrome is the unfortunate combination of symptoms that we may experience in the week before our period starts. While the exact cause of PMS is still TBD — it’s still one of the great mysteries of women’s health — there are a few factors that may be at work, such as changes in both your hormones and the chemicals in your brain11. Now, for some good news: PMSing is an entirely normal part of the menstrual cycle, and usually not a huge deal for your health. Plus, since it follows a pretty predictable pattern, you can at least identify when you’re dealing with PMS versus something else. If you’re feeling breast tenderness, for instance, you can use it as a heads up that your period is on its way and maybe stash some tampons in your bag — just in case.
Still, even though PMS is very common, it doesn’t exactly make life easy for you. The combo of physical discomfort and emotional stress that accompanies PMS can interfere with your daily life, interrupting your usual activities and making school or work feel a little more miserable. And a small number of women may even experience disabling symptoms, meaning the physical or emotional distress is so rough that you have to cancel plans or take a sick day. This is known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and it’s basically a super-intense version of PMS — think severe irritability, anxiety, depression2. If this sounds familiar, talk to your doctor ASAP, because there are options that can help.
On the bright side, though? No matter how it happens, premenstrual syndrome is always temporary. For most of us, PMS symptoms go away within four days after our period starts. If it doesn’t, talk to your doctor so you can get to the bottom of it.
What are Common PMS Symptoms?
If you’re PMSing, you may experience a combination of various symptoms, which usually fall into two categories: emotional and physical. PMS usually includes at least five of these symptoms, and they can range from mild to severe — it just depends on you and your body. On top of that, every menstrual cycle isn’t the same, even for yourself. You might have food cravings and feel like crying for no reason one month, and experience a breakout and mood swing the next. Ideal? Of course not — but once you have a good idea of what to expect, you can be better prepared to handle it like a pro. Here are the symptoms of PMS to watch out for:
- Breast tenderness or swelling
- Changes in sleep habits
- Chest palpitations
- Food cravings
- Increased thirst
- Joint or muscle aches
- Muscle spasms
- Swollen ankles or swollen fingers (from fluid retention)
- Upset stomach
- Weight gain
- Anger, irritability
- Anxiety, tension
- Changes in libido
- Crying spells
- Decreased interest in usual activities
- Depression, depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low self-image
- Social withdrawal
- Sudden and dramatic mood swings
How to Ease PMS Symptoms
While there’s no way to prevent premenstrual syndrome, proactive steps can help at least minimize your discomfort and take your stress levels down a notch — making this monthly rite of passage just a little more bearable. A few small changes can make a whole lot of difference in taking on symptoms of PMS:
Jot down notes wherever — in a notebook or on your phone, it’s totally your call — about the symptoms you’re feeling. Whether you’re more tired than usual or have a stomach ache for no apparent reason, taking a note of it will help you figure out patterns so you can better troubleshoot in the months ahead.
Tweak Your Diet
Food cravings have nothing on an otherwise healthy diet. Load up on complex carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to keep things moving in your gut, and slow down on salt, which can help keep bloating and water retention to a minimum. Next: Split your usual meals into smaller portions that you can eat throughout the day, which may help you feel less uncomfortably full (a not-so-fun side effect of bloating). And take a break from caffeine and alcohol, both of which can mess with your digestive system, throw off your sleep, and make you more irritable — and trust us, that’s the last thing you need right now.
Work on Your Stress
Keep your mood swings at a minimum by getting your stress in check. The easiest way to do this: Go to bed. A lack of sleep can make everything worse — PMS included — and you’re basically starting from behind when you wake up feeling exhausted. If you have headaches, trouble falling asleep, or anxiety, try deep-breathing exercises. And you can’t go wrong with a little yoga session; some poses can even help with cramps and bloating. (Do you experience cramps every month? Learn more about menstrual cramp causes, symptoms, and treatments.)
Exercise is the ultimate problem-solver: It can make you feel less stressed, ease bloating and cramping, and help you feel more energized. And sure, while a 5K probably doesn’t seem appealing when you’re feeling like a beached whale in a bad mood, it’ll probably be worth it afterwards. If tender breasts make jogging a no-go, even a brisk walk or cycling works.
Certain medications can help with physical PMS symptoms, especially if you take them at the onset of your period. In particular, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, may help you deal with the discomfort of breast tenderness and cramping.
Premenstrual syndrome is no cakewalk, but knowing what symptoms of PMS to expect — like physical and mental changes — can make it way easier to handle when it comes around. Who says you need to be miserable every month? (No one, that’s who.) Now you know exactly how to tell your PMS to chill.