How I Learned to Organize My Life Around My Menstrual Cycle (and So Can You)

Tracking my menstrual cycle used to look like this: I bleed, I mark it on my calendar and when I have a meltdown the following month, I look at my calendar and decide whether or not I can blame said meltdown on my impending period. This was cute and funny until it wasn’t. My “meltdowns” started looking more like bouts of crushing depression and anxiety, and my gynecologist suggested that I might have premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMDD. It’s basically PMS on steroids that shows up and wrecks your life for one to two weeks every month. She recommended that I track all four phases of my cycle so I could take steps to balance my hormones and get a handle on my mental health. When I scoured the internet to learn exactly how to do that, I found that I wasn’t alone.

It turns out that a lot of bleeding people track their cycles. They’re tracking to get pregnant; they’re tracking to not get pregnant. And they’re tracking to understand what’s happening in their bodies, because no one ever told us how this stuff works. Growing up, most of us were taught that menstruating is an isolated, monthly event, but the menstrual cycle is just that — a cycle. It’s a constant shedding and regeneration that relies on the rise and fall of hormones, and those hormones — namely, estrogen and progesterone — have an enormous impact on how we feel day-to-day. Eventually, tracking my cycle started feeling less like planning around my terrible PMS and more like following a rhythm. Once I identified my varying needs during each phase of my cycle, I was able to take better care of myself overall.

A graph called "Hormone Changes in the Average Cycle" shows the rise and fall of FSH, estrogen, LH and progesterone

Graph by Clue

Aligning my life with its hormonal seasons was a far cry from my old habits, because I used to aim for consistency. I expected myself to be equally productive, energized and social every single day. I expected myself to have the same physical and emotional needs all the time. I expected myself to hit my creative peak during traditional 9 to 5 work hours and wind down in the evenings. Most people with periods live with expectations that are at odds with our own biochemistry because our culture runs on the testosterone-dominant biochemical model. In most assigned-male-at-birth, testosterone-dominant bodies, testosterone peaks every morning and drops throughout the day, resulting in a 24 hour hormonal cycle. But when you have a 28 day hormonal cycle as a menstruating person or when you have a weekly or monthly hormonal cycle as a person using hormone replacement therapy, the 24 hour model doesn’t match your body’s rhythm. When you stop forcing yourself to meet standards that don’t fit your natural flow, you might feel more empowered, or at least less frustrated.

When the concept of “cycle syncing,” or organizing your life around your menstrual cycle, entered mainstream consciousness, its intentions seemed virtuous. Encouraging menstruating people to learn more about our bodies is always a good thing, especially in a culture that doesn’t provide adequate sex education and reproductive healthcare. But when author Alisa Vitti, who coined the term “cycle syncing,” started encouraging menstruating people to “hack” our periods to increase our productivity, capitalism swept in. Almost every article about cycle syncing focuses on making menstruating people more prolific workers. Take this quote from Forbes: “With more women than ever in the workforce climbing up the ladder, it’s time to consider what we can do to finally shatter that elusive glass ceiling…What if the secret to successful project planning and execution was embedded in the female hormonal cycle?”

If that grotesquely capitalist and gender-essentialist language makes you want to dump your Diva Cup on every pompous business periodical, you’re not alone. I’m here for cycle syncing that’s rooted in personal growth, not profit. I track my cycle to set goals, conserve my energy and take care of my mental health. In each phase, I get to focus on a different area of my well-being so I can better show up for myself and my community, and I want to help you do that, too!

Who Can Track Their Cycle

If you have a period and you’re not using HRT or birth control that alters your menstruation or ovulation, then you can track your cycle. If you have irregular periods, it might take some extra time to find your body’s rhythm, but you can still track it!

How to Track Your Cycle

Period-tracking apps like Clue and Flo make it easy to collect information about your cycle. You tell the app when your bleeding starts and ends and what symptoms you’re experiencing day-to-day, and the app uses an algorithm to estimate where you’re at in your cycle. But if you understandably don’t trust apps with your health data, you can still track your cycle the old-fashioned way. The book Taking Charge Of Your Fertility outlines this process in detail. If a giant book with aggressively gendered language doesn’t feel accessible for you, here are the basics: track when you bleed, track your temperature and pay attention to your cervical mucus.

You probably already mark your periods in your calendar, but the other tracking tasks might be new for you. Don’t worry — it’s easy if you’re consistent, and if you’re a data nerd, it can be fun. First, take your temperature every morning as soon as you wake up and write it down. This is your basal body temperature (BBT), or your temperature at rest. Your BBT should be fairly consistent until you ovulate, when your BBT will be slightly higher (use a BBT thermometer, which measures temperature in tenths of a degree, for the most accurate reading). Of course, BBT only tells you when you’re ovulating, and it isn’t exact. Stress, changing sleep cycles, illness and medication can all cause fluctuations in your BBT that have nothing to do with your period, so tracking BBT alone won’t give you a clear picture of your cycle.

This is the part where you get to finger yourself on a daily basis to check your cervical mucus. See? I told you that this would be fun! If you’re not comfortable with penetration, you can also check out the mucus that ends up in your underwear. Cervical mucus is always there, but its color and consistency will change during each phase of your cycle. Just after you bleed, you won’t notice much mucus around the cervix, but once your body is preparing to ovulate, you might find stretchy, clear mucus. When your estrogen levels peak, that mucus will turn white and thicken. If it looks like egg whites, then you’re probably ovulating. Once the white mucus has transitioned into clear or cloudy mucus, you’ve likely entered your luteal phase. If your cervical mucus is gray or has a foul odor, you might have an infection, so get to clinic ASAP.

When you start tracking your cycle, you may find that some or all of your phases are longer and shorter than what’s considered “normal.” That’s ok! Everyone’s cycle is different. But if you think that your irregular phases might be due to a medical issue, talk to your doctor.

Onto the phases!

The Menstrual Phase: Stillness and Reflection

What’s Happening In Your Body: If the egg from your previous cycle hasn’t been fertilized, your estrogen and progesterone levels drop and you start to bleed. On average, this phase lasts from three to five days.

How You Probably Feel: While your body is working hard to shed your uterine lining, your physical and mental energy is at its lowest point. This is a time for rest, solitude and introspection. If you typically engage in high-intensity exercise, replace your workout routine with yoga or a walk. Take time to reflect on the past month and set some goals for your new cycle. You might be feeling less social, so lean into your reclusiveness and practice all those self-soothing techniques you learned in therapy. Spend your alone time doing things that spark your creativity. Journal, draw, play an instrument, brainstorm a project — your intuition and creativity are strong right now, so take advantage of the inspiration. This is also a perfect time to celebrate your self-worth. Take yourself on a date to a museum or a park. Cook an elaborate meal that’s just for you. Make a list of things you’re proud of. If you suffer from severe cramps and fatigue during this time, find areas of life where you can stop pushing yourself and rest.

The Follicular Phase: Action and Novelty

What’s Happening In Your Body: The follicular phase partially overlaps with the menstrual phase and typically lasts 10 to 16 days. Your hypothalamus tells your pituitary gland to release follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), which tells your ovaries to create follicles, or sacks that contain immature eggs. As the healthiest egg starts to mature, your body starts releasing more estrogen, which cues the uterine lining to thicken and prepare for a potentially fertilized egg.

How You Probably Feel: As estrogen rises, your energy rises, too. Now that your body has finished bleeding, you can take advantage of your greater physical and emotional capacity. Move your body and celebrate its capabilities. You might find that you’re hungry for adventure, so this is the perfect time to get out of your comfort zone. Learn a new skill. Travel. Make new friends. Start tackling the goals you set during your menstrual phase and start scheduling social events for your upcoming ovulatory phase, when you’ll be craving even more stimulation.

The Ovulatory Phase: Sex and Socializing

What’s Happening In Your Body: Your estrogen levels hit their peak. This tells the pituitary gland to release luteinizing hormone (LH), which tells your ovary to release the mature egg. The egg travels through the fallopian tube from the ovary to the uterus, and body starts producing thicker cervical mucus to aid in fertilization. This is when you’re the most fertile, so keep this in mind if you’re having P-in-V intercourse. If you’re trying to prevent pregnancy, make sure you’re using barriers or avoiding P-in-V sex entirely during this phase (and if you’re trying to get pregant, get it on!). Ovulation typically lasts about five days.

How You Probably Feel: When estrogen peaks, so does your power and confidence. This is a great time to pitch a project, set boundaries, negotiate a raise and finally slide into your crush’s DMs. All of that estrogen might make you feel horny, so put on your sexy briefs and take some nudes. Plan some hot sex with a partner (and/ or masturbate, masturbate, masturbate!). You’re probably feeling extra social, too, so throw you attention to the activities that felt too draining during your reclusive menstrual phase. Spend time with friends, especially in groups. Throw a (socially-distant) party. Attempt a TikTok dance challenge. Compliment a stranger. You’re hungry for connection and attention, so go out there and get it!

The Luteal Phase: Concentration and Preparation

What’s Happening In Your Body: Your estrogen starts to dip and progesterone rises, which causes the uterine lining to thicken in preparation for a fertilized egg. If the egg is fertilized, your body will start producing human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), which maintains the uterine lining while an egg develops into an embryo. If the egg isn’t fertilized, it dissolves, and your uterus prepares to shed its lining. This phase usually lasts between 12 and 14 days.

How You Might Feel: Your energy starts to dip as your body prepares to bleed. Your high progesterone has a sedating effect, stabilizing your blood sugar and generally slowing you down. If you experience PMS symptoms, you might be feeling physically and mentally “blegh.” It’s easier to fall into negative self-talk during this time, so make sure you’re staying on top of therapy, journaling, daily affirmations or whatever else you do to stay clear-headed and practice self-compassion. As your brain and body wind down, let go of the big picture stuff and focus on the details. This is the perfect time to wrap up projects and take care of those pesky life admin tasks like scheduling appointments, actually checking your bank account and reminding yourself that you do, in fact, need to get your oil changed. If you take care of business now, you’ll be able to rest and rejuvenate once you start to bleed. If you have premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), the luteal phase might be a traumatizing time for you, so prepare for it in advance. Plan to have some one-on-one time with close friends, make sure that your schedule isn’t too packed when you know your brain will be freaking out and remember that this phase will pass.

Do you already track your cycle? What changes do you notice during each phase? Drop your thoughts in the comments. 


Support Independent Queer Media

We’re raising funds to make it through the end of July. 99% of the people who read this site don’t support. Will you be one of the ones who do? Joining A+ is one of the best ways to support Autostraddle — plus you get access to bonus content while keeping the site 99% free for everyone. Will you join today?

Support Autostraddle

Join A+

Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. And A+ members keep the majority of our site free for everyone. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you're able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?
Related:

Ro White is a Chicago-based writer and sex educator. Follow Ro on Twitter.

Ro has written 63 articles for us.

19 Comments

  1. Hecka appreciate this post, did you use either app (or both) and recommend one?

    Since getting an IUD my period tends to be spotting for a week or two, but my cycle definitely is impacting something pretty seriously because some months my depression will be full-blown again for a day (which is really scary for me). I definitely feel more baseline after my period starts too, it becomes a relief for me.

    Also hard-core relate to that self-pressure to be on at the same level every day all the time no matter what -_-

  2. I LOVE this! I’ve been tracking my cycle for a few years now and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my relationship with myself/my body. Thanks for writing about this here.

  3. I started cycle tracking before trying to get pregnant, which is how I learned that my whole self changes along with each stage. I also learned that I have PMDD and a short luteal phase that makes it hard for me to get pregnant without bypassing my natural cycle and adding hormonal drugs. 🙃 My favorite cycle tracking app is Fertility Friend, because it’s mostly a bland, neutral data log but it has the most detail and is the most customizable.

    I found that I tend to feel “meh/ok” on my period, pretty good on the first couple weeks of my follicular phase (I have a long cycle), then as estrogen ramps towards ovulation, I get happier/more energetic but also very anxious and my panic disorder flares up. After ovulation, while progesterone rises, I feel calmer, but less energetic or happy. When both hormones fall in the last week of my cycle–my luteal phase is only 8-11 days, and my progesterone drops too quickly, hence my issues conceiving–I am prone to outbursts, meltdowns, and severe depression. Tried going on BC for this but got stuck in the high-energy-but-daily-panic-attacks phase of my cycle. SSRIs/SNRIs/CBD/THC (all things I’ve tried) also either calm the anxiety but worsen the depression, or help the depression but increase my anxiety. I would love to fix that but no luck yet. 😕

    I’d like to adjust my life to my cycle more but as a parent with an in-person, 9-5, demanding full time job, it is not easy to decide how I spend my own time.

    • I know this isn’t the main focus but I’m on a tetracyclic antidepressant which is apparently targeted at combination depression and anxiety. I’m noticing improvements after a month, although it’s obviously hard to know if it’s really the drug that’s helping or my other lifestyle adjustments. I hope you find a solution that works for you!

      • That’s interesting, I’ll have to look into that! I’m getting ready to start trying for our second baby so I’m not starting any new meds right now, but once second kiddo is weaned I am looking into more long-term ways to manage my mental health issues.

  4. YESSSSS i am SO glad yall wrote & published this!! I read “this is your brain on birth control” on a whim, and the part that explains this stuff totally changed my life. its written by a cis woman; it has a sort of disclaimer thing about how its for everyone; its not actively anti-trans, but the language is cis-centric, and its long, so i couldn’t recommend it. I CAN RECOMMEND THIS!! THANK YOUUUU!!! THANK YOUUUU!!! THANK YOUUUU!!! also the titles of these four phases are wonderful and will help me A TON.

    i think this will help a looooot of people feel better, ro – i really didnt’ know ppl who menstruate who are not on birth control have a different (ahem more interesting in my opinion) rhythm than ppl who are not. knowing it changed so much for me. also into queer people getting our nutrition (i was anemic til i started eating red meat – it is possible to get enough iron in a veg* diet but it takes hella planning and not all of us are up to it)

  5. I’ve always hated hormonal cycles. I took Yasmin for twelve years to stop having periods, but quit last year because I wanted to know if it was affecting my mood. I’d kind of forgotten that hormonal cycles affected moods too. It’s pretty unpleasant.

    In terms of changes, I’ve noticed that the day before my period is a day of extreme emotional sensitivity that usually ends in me crying all night, and I’m pretty irritable and grumpy when I’m ovulating.

  6. This is fascinating! I find that I get really, really sad right before or at my predicted ovulation day in Clue (as well as really sad and tired right before my period), so it’s interesting to hear that it’s typically a social time for other people. Kiah’s comment above about anxiety/panic also getting a boost from that estrogen build gives me something new to watch out for over the next few cycles. Bodies!!!

  7. Thanks Ro this was great!
    I’ve been tracking my cycle for around 4 years and noticed I have suchhh intense anxiety and depression correlated to particular times of my cycle. Only just found out there’s a name for that (pmdd)! I’m still working on the how-to-alleviate-those-symptoms part…(any suggestions?)
    I used to use Clue but lost all my data when I switched phones (pro tip – get an account and store your data on it). Recently discovered Moody which I like so far for its text and voice-memo journal options, and customizable symptom log

  8. PREACH!!
    I also think I have PMDD (it’s been the worst half a year ago), though undiagnosed. Despite my schedule not being flexible, there’s always things I can do early im my follicular phase so I dont have to bother with them in the luteal phase.
    I have been tracking my cycles years ago due to other hormonal imbalances, just like if I was to fertility, because no gynecologist would help me with diagnosing it. Not only did I manage to find that out, but I realised HOW MUCH my mood is associated with cycle that now Im so much more aligned with own rhythm. Highly recommend!

  9. Thank you Ro!!! This is so helpful. I got diagnosed w/ PMDD two years ago and this puts everything in the most simple and helpful way. I’m gonna write your sub-headings into my planner this month.

    I know antidepressants don’t work for everyone, but if anyone is thinking about trying them, I just wanted to say that I started an SSRI about a year ago and it has been super amazing for my PMDD. I still get sad and grumpy around my period, but it feels more like what all my friends seem to get and not the bonkers anxiety/depression that I used to get.

    Sorry for spamming the group, but I just wanted to share a few things that were really helpful for me when I was looking into this last year, that might be helpful to talk about with a doctor if you’re thinking about trying antidepressants for PMDD:

    1. Not all antidepressants work for PMDD specifically. I’ve heard that SSRI’s are the way to go when you’re specifically trying to alleviate PMDD symptoms, and that’s been the case for me, but also I’m not a doctor so definitely take this with a grain of salt.

    2. My gyn said that some folks take the SSRI’s all month, and other folks take it just during the luteal phase–so that might be a good option for people who are just wanting to target the PMDD but are concerned about being on antidepressants full-time.

    3. Apparently this works because the meds kick in WAY faster than they do for regular anxiety and depression. Usually when you’re starting new meds you have to wait 4-6 weeks or so to feel the full effects, but with PMDD the symptoms usually get better within 24-48 hours (which is CRAZY and cool and I have no idea why this is the case).

    4. That said, it does usually take a few months to really get used to the cycle with the meds and to start feeling better.

    5. I’ve also heard that many folks don’t need as high of a dose to help with PMDD than you do for typical anxiety/depression. I started with a really low dose, and while I did move up to a regular dose that helped more, even that little bit noticeably lifted my mood.

    6. tl;dr if cost is an important factor, those smaller doses and being able to potentially take the meds only half the month can really help with cutting costs. But obviously talk to your doctor first to make sure that’s the right thing for you.

    Just want to emphasize again that I am not a doctor!! Please talk to your doctor.

    And again, I know antidepressants aren’t the right path for everyone and don’t work for all folks, but for me they’ve been amazing for my PMDD and have really really helped me to feel good again! So I just wanted to share in case someone is wondering about trying SSRI’s out.

    Wishing you all to feel good all the time and especially during that darn luteal phase!!

  10. I love this post, thank you so much for all the great information. If/when I ever start having a menstrual cycle again I will come back to this.

    I do just want to say for those people out there with brutal cycles (I have 10 days of bleeding, debilitating cramps and horrible PMDD, so can relate) that it’s okay to use BC or other methods to deal with/control your cycle too! I often feel bad (though not at all from this post) about not being “natural” and tracking my cycle. But taking BC continuously has, oddly, been the best anti-depressant and way to protect from regular heavy blood loss for me.

    • Totally agree! I take birth control because my periods were hell, but I always wonder what it would be like to be more “natural” and track my cycles. Birth control also has some annoying side effects for me, like dryness that makes sex more painful. So I’m not really sure what the best option is, but I’m glad my pain is only semi-debilitative now and I bleed for only a few days a month.

  11. Glad this is being talked about! I don’t have PMDD but my body reacts really badly to progesterone physically for some reason (causing nausea, etc.), so I started tracking my cycle a few years ago and modifying some of my behavior, and it’s really helped mitigate the symptoms. I learned that my alcohol tolerance is very high during ovulation and every low during the luteal phase, when I cut back or eliminate alcohol and coffee in favor of tea and increase my sleep time. Once I started paying attention to myself everything just made so much more sense; I cannot recommend it enough.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!