In the collective imagination, the menstrual cycle is often only associated with periods or, at most, the dreaded PMS that shows up in the preceding days. But there’s much more to it than that: the menstrual cycle runs from the first day of one period to the first day of the next. Throughout the course of this cycle, there is a fluctuation in hormone levels, which has very real psychological and physiological consequences for people who menstruate. And while the negatives are common knowledge, the benefits that come from a deeper understanding of the menstrual cycle are rarely discussed. When you know how to interpret it, however, your cycle can be a precious ally in the pursuit of professional and personal wellbeing. For example, it can give an insight into the best times for exploring your creativity, opening up to others, or kicking self-care into high gear. It’s basically a hidden advantage that can improve your work life. So listen up: here are some tips on how to make the most of the menstrual cycle at work.
The four phases of the menstrual cycle…
To get a better understanding of what happens in the body during the menstrual cycle, it can help to break it down into four phases.
- Menstruation: the first day of menstruation—otherwise known as a period—begins the menstrual cycle. This phase typically lasts anywhere between three and seven days, depending on the individual. And contrary to popular belief, only 13% of menstruating people have a 28-day cycle.
- The follicular phase: also known as the pre-ovulatory phase, this refers to the days following the period when the uterus prepares to receive a fertilized egg. Estrogen production increases, reaching a peak with ovulation.
- Ovulation: this is when the ovarian follicles release an egg. It travels down to the uterus, waiting to be fertilized. This phase occurs anywhere between the 11th and 16th day after menstruation starts. During this time, there’s a slight spike in testosterone and luteinizing hormone, which is secreted by the brain, causing an egg to be released.
- The luteal phase: this is the period between ovulation and menstruation. Once the egg is released, the follicle disintegrates into the corpus luteum, which produces estrogen and progesterone. The simultaneous production of these two hormones is what causes the mood disturbances commonly associated with PMS.
Reciting these facts would probably impress your high-school science teacher. But by gaining insight into the physiological and psychological impact of each phase, you can put your cycle to your professional advantage.
…And their impact
Each individual body is different, which is why the effects of the menstrual cycle vary from one person to another. At the same time, it is possible to outline some common experiences for each of the four phases.
During menstruation, for example, sex hormones are at their lowest and energy levels sag. This is the perfect time to relax and take a step back from it all. For Gaëlle Baldassari, coach and creator of the Enjoy Your Cycle online programmes, it’s the time for “skeleton services”: scaling back to perform basic tasks and only those you deem essential. In this way, periods can help you avoid making hasty decisions. You can draw up a plan of action in peace, setting it all in motion when you’re in better shape.
After menstruation, estrogen is once again on the rise—and, along with it, overall energy levels. Estrogen plays a key role in how the brain synthesizes serotonin, the chemical involved in mood regulation. That’s why the days preceding ovulation are often marked by optimism. You’re literally back in business, which is why it can be helpful to have a professional plan of action already in place. “During the follicular phase, you’re generally more likely to act than to reflect. That’s when it’s helpful to have ready-made to-do lists that you just have to tick off,” Baldassari says.
Ovulation is accompanied by peak levels of estrogen and testosterone, which tend to make you more outward-looking. It’s the perfect time to connect with those around you. At work, this can be the best time to open lines of communication, build bonds and seek out new clients or partners.
The premenstrual phase, on the other hand, can be challenging due to the simultaneous production of estrogen and progesterone. During this time, it can be tempting to sink into negativity, become overly critical and act more impulsively. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, PMS brings some benefits into the professional sphere as well. “For some menstruating people, this phase is when frustrations come to the fore,” says Baldassari. “It can thus provide you with an opportunity to dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s or tweak anything that’s not working. Being aware that you are in this phase of the cycle also allows you to choose language more carefully so that you don’t have to go back on your word.” The premenstrual phase is also associated with a boost in creativity and enhanced concentration. That’s because progesterone makes you look inward and focus on your innermost self.
To get a clearer picture of your cycle, you can use period tracking apps such as Clue or Flo. Baldassari recommends observing your cervical mucus, also known as vaginal discharge. This is the whitish liquid secreted by the glands in the cervix. Depending on the timing of your cycle, it’s easy to detect in your underwear. “This is the easiest method. The apps are modeled on highly regular cycles, which not everyone has. If your discharge is abundant and fluid, then you’re at the phase nearing ovulation. This is the first sign. Next, simply count how many days until your next period. Then repeat your observations over several cycles to get a better idea of how your body works.”
Make the most of your menstrual cycle
By understanding more about your menstrual cycle, you can identify the best times to perform certain jobs and, if necessary, pinpoint which ones can wait until you’re up to the task at hand.
But don’t take it too far—you won’t need to rearrange your entire schedule to match your menstrual cycle. To begin with, some professional duties can’t be adjusted. And just because ovulation is conducive to openness, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re unfit to communicate the rest of the time. “Remember that you are never incapable, not at any point in time. It’s just that there are certain periods when things come a little more easily,” says Baldassari. As such, it’s really up to the individual. Deciding which tasks are easier or harder, depending on where you are in your cycle, can help you simplify your life.
Understanding your cycle can also help you let go of guilt. This is what Jeanne, a sales manager, discovered. “Some days, I would beat myself up because I wasn’t out prospecting for new clients. I just kept putting it off. Then, as if by magic, I had no problems doing it a few days later. When I looked at my menstrual cycle, I noticed that prospecting typically fell on the days during my period. I’ve since lowered my prospecting goals on those days. I know that communicating is harder for me then and that I’ll make up for it later when I have more energy. And that’s OK, as long as my goals are met.”
Understanding your cycle helps prevent burnout
Preventing burnout is another major benefit that comes from tracking your cycle. Having gone through burnout herself, Baldassari now uses her menstrual cycle as a tool to keep from falling back into bad habits. “When a cycle doesn’t work, it’s a sign that something is off,” she says in Enjoy Your Cycle. When your periods stop, the body is sending a signal. “It’s telling you that it’s not ready to reproduce, that there’s something wrong. Keep in mind that stress is the number one endocrine disruptor. This is one signal that shouldn’t be taken lightly,” she says.
Similarly, when energy levels stop fluctuating—when you’re either exhausted or amped up at all times—this may be an indicator that something in your professional life is dysfunctional. “Up until the day before my burnout, I told everyone I was fine. I was in complete denial. If I’d known about my menstrual cycle back then, I’d have realized that I was no longer able to relax. Letting go like that became too dangerous, and everything was on the verge of collapse,” says Baldassari. The menstrual cycle is all about hormonal fluctuations, including the shifting emotional and physical states they can trigger. By knowing more about your cycle, you may be better able to spot the effects of workplace stress before it’s too late.
You could even use your cycle as a tool to set deadlines and schedule tasks that are more closely aligned with your physical and emotional states. This kind of self-awareness also offers insight into the instinctive reactions you may have towards your work and colleagues. And remember that the three days preceding your period are the perfect time to say what’s on your mind.
Translated by Andrea Schwam
Photo by Welcome to the Jungle
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