If you have PMS, you know that we often need many different approaches to alleviate our period pain. From physical therapy to nutrition to your arsenal of supplements and heating pads, solving monthly pain is a multifaceted process.
If you’re determined to find natural ways to manage your period pain, perhaps you should try mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness has been a hot topic for years now. Many people turn to mindfulness meditation to bring a sense of calm into their life, to move through grief, or to deal with physical pain.
Have you tried it yet? In this crash course on mindfulness and your period you will:
- Learn what mindfulness meditation is (and what it’s not)
- Decide whether or not meditation can help with your PMS
- Learn how to meditate correctly
The more we study it, the more fascinating mindfulness meditation becomes. Research has found all kinds of proven benefits: healthier relationships, reduced social bias, lowered blood pressure, and more.
One study that got everyone talking back in 2011 showed how mindfulness meditation actually changes the structure of your brain for the better. Areas of the brain that deal with memory and emotional regulation benefited, while areas that deal with stress and anxiety lowered in cell count.
So what does this mean for you? For our purposes, let’s focus on the influence that mindfulness meditation has on stress, inflammation, and our attitudes. Then, we’ll explore the relationship between these three factors and how we experience menstrual cramps.
Mindfulness, Your Period, And the Relaxation Response
First, we need to understand what the relaxation response is and how it relates to mindfulness. As it turns out, the relaxation response can make a huge difference in whether or not we experience period pain. And meditation is the key to unlocking it.
So what is the relaxation response? It’s an antidote to the surge of stress hormones that we experience when our fight-or-flight response is activated. While the fight-or-flight response is a useful survival mechanism, we tend to experience it when we don’t need it.
When someone cuts you off on the highway. Or when you see something offensive online. Or when you’re under a lot of pressure at work.
Fight-or-flight can take a toll on the body. If you experience chronic stress, you know. And chronic stress has a huge effect on period pain.
One way to counter this response and restore balance to your body is to trigger the relaxation response. Breathing exercises, yoga, and mindfulness meditation can all do this.
Our favorite tool for this is mindfulness meditation because research has begun to show us that it builds resilience to stress over time. That means that with practice, you can protect yourself from the unnecessary effects of stress. Over time, living becomes easier.
This is a core teaching of many Buddhist teachers. The teachings of the Buddha, many will say, were not designed to create a religion. They were simply designed to teach one to live with greater ease.
Why Should We Practice Mindfulness Meditation?
Any meditation practice is just that--a practice. At times, it can feel like “nothing’s happening.” If you’ve ever meditated, you’ve probably had that thought. The funny thing is, sometimes that’s the point. But our busy minds like to know that we’re spending our time wisely.
So it’s important to reflect on why we choose to practice meditation in the first place. In their book, Seeking The Heart of Wisdom, Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield write this:
“We don’t have to look far to see how pervasive suffering is in the world. There is the suffering that people are experiencing right now due to poverty and injustice. The presence of starvation, disease, and oppression stringently defines many people’s lives. As we pay attention to the world around us, we see how evident suffering is in so many arenas of life...it is vital that we remain connected and sensitive to this fact.”
The first teaching of the Buddha was that suffering is an inevitable part of life. But there is a way to have peace, despite this fact. The way? To awaken one’s mind through a practice of awareness and a commitment to developing wisdom through mindfulness meditation.
Today, uncertainty about our jobs, our health, and the trajectory of COVID-19 have added a heap of stress to our lives. Add to that pressing social issues that have politically activated the entire country, and it’s safe to say that Goldstein and Kornfield are right. We don’t have to look far to see how pervasive suffering is.
Mindfulness meditation is one way to maintain our health, sense of calm, and groundedness in a time that has certainly exhausted us and shows no sign of stopping.
Before we get into how to meditate and how we can use meditation for PMS, let’s define it.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of whatever is happening. Often, this means being present with things that can seem mundane or boring. But mindfulness can be practiced anywhere.
Let’s look at an example of how we can turn a mundane experience into a mindful experience.
You’re walking to the kitchen, lost in thought about a conversation you had this morning. You open the fridge and nothing looks good, until you notice the leftovers from the Mediterannean place last night. You decide you’ll make a salad.
Here’s how to make that mindful:
When you’re walking to the kitchen, bring your attention to your feet. What do your feet feel like against the ground? Can you bring your awareness into the movement of your legs as you lift and step, lift and step?
When you realize you’re lost in thought about a conversation, gently note to yourself that you’re thinking.
Feel your arm as you reach out for the refrigerator door. Feel the waft of cool air that hits your face as you open it. When you realize that nothing looks good, note that disappointment is happening.
When you see the leftovers that look good to you, you notice the shift in emotion towards excitement.
This is an example of going about your usual motions with an awareness of what is happening in your physical, emotional, and mental state. You can notice the changes as you shift from moment to moment.
This is being “mindful.”
Today, this practice is used in mental health therapies to help people become skilled at managing their mental states. In some parts of the country, schools are utilizing mindfulness techniques to help students deal with social and academic stress.
Some practitioners have brought mindfulness techniques to prisons to help inmates cope. Some researchers are looking at how it can support pregnant mothers. Even Google has implemented a mindfulness training program to encourage a cohesive, functional work environment.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice of formal sitting, standing, or walking to develop one’s ability to be mindful from moment to moment.
It’s hard to say where and when meditation originates but our first written records of the practice are found in Hindu and Buddhist Indian scriptures, dating back to 1500 BCE. We also see writings from China from the 3rd and 6th centuries BCE.
In the West meditation is most commonly associated with the monastic traditions of Christianity that were born in north Africa in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE. It wasn’t until the 1960s, however, that the US began its first attempts to seriously study the impact of meditation on our health. It was these first studies out of which the relaxation response was born, and meditation began to be more widely accepted by western medicine.
Today, meditation is widely used as a form of self-care.
It’s important to note what meditation is not. Meditation isn’t the practice of sitting down and “turning off” your mind. Meditation is sitting down and turning towards whatever is going on in the mind, the body, or both.
Can Mindfulness Meditation Relieve Period Pain?
In short, yes. But let’s look at the research that has been done to show how mindfulness affects menstrual cramps and other symptoms.
There are so many different PMS symptoms. Irritability, menstrual cramps, bloating, depression, and on and on. And a number of factors in our body and our environment determine whether or not we experience them.
Meditation helps alleviate anxiety, depression, water retention, and stress. And research has shown that it helps us to change our mental attitude toward our pain, which actually helps alleviate it.
Let’s look at three PMS inducing conditions that meditation can improve:
Stress and PMS
A study in the Journal of Women’s Health showed that womxn who experienced unrelated stress before their period were 2-3 times more likely to experience PMS symptoms.
And another study found that womxn who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder had an increased risk for secondary PMDD. PMMD, or premenstrual dysphoric disorder, shows symptoms similar to PMS, but with more severity.
To use these findings to alleviate your PMS symptoms, you can do one of two things:
- You can eliminate all stressors and potentially traumatic experiences from your life
- You can adopt strategies to coping with stress and trauma so that your body knows how to stay balanced and healthy no matter what
It’s pretty obvious that the first option is unrealistic. Stress is an inevitable part of life. And we can’t go back and wipe trauma from our history. But mindfulness meditation can give us control over how we react to things that happen in our life. As a result, stress lowers, and so does our monthly pain.
Inflammation and Menstrual Cramps
Stress triggers inflammation. And the more inflammation you have, the more severe your PMS symptoms are likely to be. According to the Journal of Women’s Health, cramps, bloating, breast soreness, and other symptoms are all linked to higher levels of inflammation in the body.
So targeting stress and inflammation can help to alleviate your period pain.
Inflammation can be addressed through diet and exercise. But when it comes to stress-induced inflammation, mindfulness has also proven to be effective.
Why not try all three? You can actually incorporate mindfulness into your exercise or yoga regimen. And you can even meditate while you eat your period-friendly meals.
Mindfulness And Your Mental Attitude
Nope, PMS is not a state of mind. We know now (thankfully) that menstrual cramps aren’t all in your head. One researcher compares the pain from menstrual cramps to “having a heart attack.”
However, there is now evidence that by changing your attitude toward your menstrual cycle, you stand a chance to lessen your pain.
A study published in Mindfulness found that mindfulness can improve your attitude towards your menstrual cycle, and in turn lessen the severity of your symptoms.
The study sampled 127 women from ages 18-26. Researchers found that positive “menstrual attitudes” correlated with lower PMS symptoms. And that mindfulness meditation significantly influenced the relationship between attitudes and severity of symptoms.
How does mindfulness improve our mental state? By observing the experiences in your mind and body, you can cultivate a non-judgmental attitude towards them. For example, if you’re experiencing pain, then you have both the pain and your attitude towards that pain.
Usually, our attitude towards pain is extremely resistant. Thoughts like “I don’t want this anymore,” or “I’m tired, this hurts” cause added distress.
In meditation communities, this is called the “second arrow.” When we develop a non-judgmental attitude towards our experiences, we can relieve ourselves of the stress that comes with resistance.
How To Meditate When You’re PMSing
There are many ways to meditate. The following two methods are very simple and can be done by anyone.
Super Simple 3-Step Meditation For Beginners
- Find a comfortable place to sit on the floor or in a chair. If sitting isn’t an option for you, this can be done standing as well. Close your eyes.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Feel it in your chest. Notice the rising and falling of your chest or your belly. Don’t manipulate the breath, just watch it.
- When your mind wanders (and it will!) simply notice that the mind has wandered and bring your attention back to the breath.
Practice this for anywhere from 60 seconds to an hour.
The Body Scan Meditation
Try this meditation if you’re having trouble focusing.
- Find a comfortable place to sit on the floor or in a chair. If sitting isn’t an option, this can be done standing. Close your eyes.
- Bring your attention to your feet. Notice any physical sensations. Feel your feet against the ground. What do you feel? Keep your awareness here for a minute or so.
- Now shift your attention to your calves. Notice any physical sensations like tingling, cool or warm air, tension, or relaxation.
- Now move up to your thighs and do the same thing.
- In this manner, scan up the body: buttocks, pelvis, stomach, back, shoulders, arms, hands, neck, face, and head.
- Once you’ve scanned your body, open your awareness up to feel the entire body at once.
Troubleshooting Your Practice
Sometimes meditation is easier said than done. We’re bound to run into challenges. Here are some common challenges and their solutions.
Troubleshooting Tip #1. Your mind will wander. This can be frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be. Try to offer yourself the same patience that you would to a puppy that you’re training. When you get off course, simply guide yourself back.
Troubleshooting tip #2. You don’t need a “zen” environment to meditate. You don’t actually need a perfectly quiet house in order to meditate. Your life isn’t “zen” so don’t require so much from your sitting practice, either.
You don’t need to be able to sit in the lotus position, either. You can sit, stand, or lay down.
Troubleshooting Tip #3. Adjust your expectations to avoid getting discouraged. Just as you expect a puppy to dart off after a butterfly, expect that your mind will wander too. It’s okay that this happens. As soon as you realize that your mind has wandered, you’ve become mindful!
Troubleshooting Tip #4. Sitting for long periods of time can be uncomfortable. If you don’t like sitting, or you feel anxious, try walking meditation.
- Stand at one side of a room, sidewalk, or grassy area. Keeping your eyes open; bring your awareness into your body.
- Hold your gaze about two feet in front of you, down towards the ground.
- Slowly walk to the other side of the room, 15-20 steps.
- As you walk, bring your attention--again and again--back to your body. The feeling of your legs and they lift and step. Your feet against the ground. Your arms as they hang by your side.
When you reach the other side, slowly turn and repeat the process.
How To Practice Mindfulness Off the Cushion
Research that has studied the relationship between mindfulness and PMS shows us that a consistent practice yields results. Practice mindfulness in your daily life.
The purpose of sitting (or walking) meditation is to train you to be mindful as you go about your day. And you can practice mindfulness any time. Remember the example of walking to the kitchen and deciding what to eat?
Here are some other activities that you can easily incorporate mindfulness into:
- Eating a meal. Be mindful of your body as you move and eat, as well as your mind as you go from hungry to full.
- Driving. Be aware of your body in your seat and your thoughts as you drive.
- Shopping. Watch your mind as it’s pulled in all different directions! Practice standing meditation as you wait in line.
- Having a conversation. Be aware that you’re talking when you’re talking. Be aware that you’re listening when you’re listening.
How to Learn More About Meditation
If meditation is hard for you, try using apps like Headspace, The Mindfulness App, or Dharmaseed to access guided meditations that will keep you on track. You can also find lessons that dive deeper into how to meditate.
Another way to learn more about meditation is to dive in headfirst to a silent retreat. Centers like Insight Meditation Society and Cloud Mountain host intensive retreats that last anywhere from a weekend to three months long.
Or, if you’d like to dip your toes in the water first, head over to Google and search “meditation groups + your city.” You can meet people to meditate with and learn about different styles of meditation this way.
Now you’re ready to start meditating! Remember to keep it simple and celebrate every time you’ve remembered to be mindful, rather than scolding yourself because you forgot.
Do you have a mindfulness practice that helps you keep PMS at bay? Give us a follow on Instagram and let us know what works for you!