Social factors not hormones cause PMS, post-natal depression and menopausal stressWomen are being sold the idea that their bodies are biologically faulty and they need medication for PMS, post-natal depression and menopausal outbursts when in fact the pressures of being 'superwoman' are more likely to blame, says a leading expert.
Professor of Women's Health Psychology at the University of Western Sydney, Jane Ussher, has been researching the issue for 20 years and says that women are being controlled by medical practices which position their unhappiness as a biomedical condition.
"I would argue that PMS and PND are essentially a form of repressed rage women feel rather than a medical illness. Our research has shown that their distress often stems from women trying to do too much for everyone - except themselves," says Professor Ussher.
"The tags pre-menstrual syndrome, post-natal depression (PND) and menopause, have become catch-all diagnostic categories that attribute women's unhappiness to their reproductive bodies and legitimise medical management of their condition," says Professor Ussher.
"The problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that female unhappiness is often an understandable response to the realities of women's lives."
Professor Ussher has recently published a new book 'Managing the Monstrous Feminine: regulating the reproductive body' which explores the issues of PMS, post-natal depression and women experiences in mid-life.
Professor Ussher draws on in-depth interviews with British and Australian women and argues that women's premenstral, post-natal and menopausal distress or anger is often connected to the way women feel compelled to be the 'good wife, mother and emotional nurturer of others'.
"It's a form of self-censoring. Women feel that they are expected to cope with the gamut of responsibilities - including their job, partner, children, extended family, housework etc - without complaint.
"They become distressed about the state of their lives and seek help only to be told that it is likely to be the result of these three diagnostic tags." Professor Ussher argues that while medicine has constructed menopause as a disease requiring HRT medication, the notion of the menopausal woman being in a state of psychological turmoil is a myth.
"The rates of depression in women actually fall with age, with only 7 per cent of women aged 45-54 experiencing depression. The notion of the menopausal body causing upheaval and depression is nothing more than fiction," she says.
Professor Ussher says the common theme emerging from her work is that women often feel unsupported and misunderstood during their early reproductive lives, but that women are happier in their later years when their responsibilities ease and their lives become their own again.
"The post feminist body is a mirage. Women can now choose how to live their lives - to work, raise children, take time for themselves and be sexy to boot. They can have it all or so we are led to believe," she says.
"Our accounts from women challenge the two common life goals that frame women's lives from puberty onwards: the notion that a woman's happiness is to be gained though love, romance, meeting 'Mr Right' and living happily ever after; and that a woman's greatest satisfaction comes from caring, mothering and self-sacrifice.
"From our research it appears that for many women they only reach a position of equilibrium and peace when they can leave these myths behind, or realise they can't sustain them any more, or feel they have paid their dues, and can now turn to their own needs for the first time in their lives."
Professor Ussher says society needs to move beyond the 'blame game' and stop viewing women's bodies as the reason for their distress.
"Our studies have shown that women cope with changes and stress at different times in their lives if they are given time-out from their responsibilities and provided with some self-care options," she says.
"Taking steps to put themselves first reduces the impact of their symptoms and empowers women to refocus and not be afraid to ask for extra help or support if they need it.
"Women need to understand that it is okay to be vulnerable at certain times without letting it overwhelm them. It's also okay to say no - for many women, this is the most difficult technique to master of all."
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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