Sometimes, waiting for your period can feel a bit like waiting for snow in February on the west coast of Canada. It can come out of nowhere, or it might not come at all. Maybe the meteorologists predicted wrong, or maybe it just isn’t going to snow this month.
At the beginning of February, my cycle was late. I waited and waited. I prepared for the monthly storm, but it didn’t come. One, three, five days came and went, with no ‘snow’, as it were. I decided it was time to see a doctor on the sixth day — just in case. My partner and I practice safe sex, but if it can happen to Ross and Rachel, it can happen to anyone.
The walk-in doctor confirmed what I already knew: not pregnant. He asked if I had been more stressed than usual and we talked about how busy the final semester of your degree can be. He explained that it’s actually fairly common for young people who are under a lot of stress to have a late period or even miss one altogether.
In all the panic about my late period, I found myself wondering: why hadn’t I heard that this was normal? Why aren’t we teaching people who menstruate about more than just the mechanics?
I wanted to know more, so I caught up with Jennifer Gibson, the Coordinator of Community Education Services at Island Sexual Health.
When someone misses a period, they often immediately assume they’re pregnant, says Jennifer. This, of course, is a vicious cycle, as they’ll start to stress more, which can subsequently delay it even more. Even Carrie Bradshaw panicked and began to picture life with kids when her period was late in season one of Sex and the City.
We’re educated to believe that a cycle happens every 28 days, says Jennifer. But cycles can actually vary in length and still be considered regular.
Generally, a regular menstrual cycle ranges from 25 to 35 days, and for some people, it could be more or less. Even so, irregularity can happen.
“About 30 per cent of people who menstruate are going to have irregular cycles at some point during their bleeding history,” she says.
Jennifer thinks incomplete sex education plays a big role in people’s misunderstandings about menstrual cycles.
Jennifer has noticed that when young people miss a period and confirm that they aren’t pregnant, they assume it must be a sign of something. But in many cases, it can be simply explained as stress, change in diet, exercise, or anything that might disrupt your hormones.
The pituitary gland in the brain controls the signals that tell our ovaries to produce the necessary hormones for a balanced menstrual cycle. Sometimes, that gland’s function gets interrupted and can throw the cycle out of whack.
The interruption can come from a number of different things such as stress about school, finding a job after university, housing, finances, travel, extreme exercise, and birth control (particularly IUDs), Jennifer explains.
“One that’s late would be considered an irregular cycle,” says Jennifer. “It’s not generally until a number of them have been missed that we would consider [it] amenorrhea.”
Jennifer thinks incomplete sex education plays a big role in people’s misunderstandings about menstrual cycles. It’s important to understand your body so that you can pay attention to what’s typical for you, she says.
“When we talk about sexual health education, we’re often talking about this idea of the prevention of the negative outcomes like sexually transmitted infections and unintentional pregnancies. Whereas we really need to understand how hormones work within our bodies,” says Jennifer.
“Even if you’re not a body that experiences a monthly bleed, you should still hold a certain amount of that knowledge because you live in a community with people who have this experience.”
In order to destigmatize menstruation, she says, we need to talk about what a period actually is.
The uterus develops a lining of nutrients so that if an egg is fertilized, those cells have enough nutrients to develop into a really healthy fetus.
The problem, says Jennifer, is that we often talk about periods in the context of sexuality — and people start to bring in their own values and beliefs.
“The science behind it is amazing and I think we should look at it as a source of empowerment for people versus a source of ‘gross or weird’.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for shame when there’s an absence of really good information that normalizes menstruation as a natural body function,” she says.
Jennifer feels that things like the new blood drop emoji that Apple is releasing will help to combat this period-shame — but things like that can’t solve the problem.
There are so many factors that can contribute to a missed or late period, but if you’re concerned, it’s best to seek a medical professional rather than checking online.
So how, in this era of speed, stress, and unwarranted opinions, can we prevent our menstrual cycles from becoming affected? Well, Jennifer says, there’s no simple answer.
Students, she says, are under a lot of stress.
“There’s a lot on the line. It’s understandable that the body sometimes wreaks a little havoc,” says Jennifer. “Be aware of what is typical for your cycle and if there is a change in that, have a look at your lifestyle and your stress levels.”
There are so many factors that can contribute to a missed or late period, but if you’re concerned, it’s best to seek a medical professional rather than checking online. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about periods disguised as fact, warns Jennifer.
“Googling anything to do with sexuality and bodies is a bit of a disaster,” says Jennifer. “You can go from zero to leprosy in two clicks.”
With the blizzard of information and opinions that we’re constantly exposed to, it’s not surprising that many of us feel overwhelmed, and missing your period doesn’t ease the stress.
After chatting with Jennifer, I had to ask myself, why don’t we learn more about periods? I’ve spent the better part of 16 years in school, and have never learned the intricacies of menstruation. Without in-depth information, we can be left feeling scared, lost, and unsure of how to proceed — like island folks when they get caught in a mid-February blizzard with summer car tires.
My period did eventually come (seven days late, but who’s counting) and my blood test results showed that I have low iron. So maybe it was school stress, maybe I work too much, or maybe I need more iron. I can’t say for sure, but it was a good reminder to pay more attention to my health — mental and physical.
These days, you can find me attempting to meditate between classes and popping prescription iron pills whenever I remember.
After all, only Carrie Bradshaw can rely on cosmopolitans, cigarettes, and New York shopping sprees to relax.