I remember this like it was yesterday. About four years back, I was anxiously waiting in the dingy reception of a clinic. I was worried and embarrassed at the same time about having to undergo an ultrasound due to my consistently inconsistent menses.
I had just turned sweet sixteen but there was no lustre of youth on my face, no sudden beauty bout was happening, no boys were besotted with me and my body weight was on an all-time hike.
I had undeniable symptoms of PCOS like hirsutism, fortnightly spotting, erratic sleeping patterns, disproportional weight gain, acne on my forehead and a never-ending riot of moods. As a result of all of these, I had a really poor self-image, something that has not changed much even after all these years. The report of my ultrasound reiterated my self-diagnosis and here I am today, writing about my constant wrestle with PCOS.
In this article, I am going to narrow down my focus on the emotional havoc PCOS causes in a woman. In all my late teens, I found it a tad bit easier to control the other corporeal symptoms I had but my moods and impulses usually got the better of me. This article is largely based on my subjective experience but it has also been researched on in the recent past. Very close links between PCOS and mood disorders have been found in researches worldwide, although it is yet to be established firmly. Women with PCOS are three times more likely to develop anxiety and depression.
This is not only because of the biochemical-hormonal reactions but also because of the social stigma around the condition and the women having it. In a society like ours where bearing a child is seen as the highest duty concomitant with womanhood, having a condition that could make you infertile exposes you to scorn and pity and makes you feel undesirable. One could also begin to feel unfeminine and “ugly”. All thanks to selectively representative commercial media and the unreasonable beauty standards it has set.
The Hormonal Riot
Women with PCOS have been found to have the excessive release of a stress hormone called Cortisol. This makes all my fellow ‘cysters’ more prone to having exaggerated responses to stressors that might not be as threatening or alarming to women who are free of this condition. PCOS is essentially an endocrinal disorder which means that it directly puts the hormones in the body into disequilibrium. It has also been researched that PCOS affects the HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and the HPG (Hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal) axis, leading to poor regulation of cortisol, adrenaline, androgens, oestrogen, progesterone etc., in the female body.
Depression too becomes a quick possibility. All in all, the hormones remain imbalanced and the woman experiences a perpetual emotional roller coaster. There is a feeling of general malaise and irritation. This could be because of a usually bloated abdomen, unpredictable periods, acne, excessive hairiness, too much stress, anxiety about one’s future and inner feelings of inadequacy as a female.
Now, it is surprising how beauty standards adversely affect our perception of ourselves. It is so pernicious that many of us do not even realise that our faulty self- image is a product of the unreasonable beauty standards that have been given representation singularly over the extensive media we consume.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we all tend to be more appreciative of features like a slim waist, fair and unblemished skin, tall yet hourglass figures etc. I could almost count these features on my fingertips. However, I am sure most people reading this article, especially women, will agree that it is almost impossible to achieve all these bodily standards. This brings us to a simple fact of psychology that when one’s ideal self is in contradiction with one’s real self, there arises conflict and conflict causes frustration. This frustration of falling short of one’s expectations leads to a severe deterioration in one’s self-image.
By the time I was sixteen, I had an unshapely unibrow, I had prominent sideburns and of course, I was overweight. I wasn’t the conventional ‘fair’ girl and my skin was dry and rough. My lips would be chapped the whole year and I needed to get a wax done every twenty days if not sooner. My forehead had never been clear of acne since the time I had touched adolescence. Because I had hit puberty earlier than others, my body matured faster than other girls my age and people would ask me what career I was pursuing even while I was only as old as a high schooler!
My mother would usually ask me to make two ponies to at least have something indicating my age. I did not really have a regular skincare routine. I washed my face with a normal face wash and that was pretty much it. Nor was I ever considerate of excessive sun exposure. I just let myself be! No amount of effort would change the way I looked and comments about how fat or ‘mature-looking’ I was for my age had been spoken by every mouth around me. My self-esteem had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. All of this further led to unruly moods and a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy.
There were small rejections, disappointments and romantic failures here and there that would affect me worse than anyone else. I could go from really happy to teary-eyed in spilt seconds. By the time I was eighteen, I was able to manage my body weight and I did look passably good but the whole process of self-image deterioration is hard to reverse. I would look at myself and know it for sure that no one would ever like me. This made me cut off emotionally from most people. I would find it hard to let anyone too close. I did not want to enable anyone to see who I really was.
I took shelter in academics and humour, none of which allowed anyone to judge me for my looks. When I would achieve something, I would be on top of the world but one negative comment and poof, all my elation would be gone and I would want to coil up in some nook of my room. I would snap at my parents and get livid at the slightest mention of any other girl my age. I would stay aloof, cry inconsolably looking at myself in the mirror and never take compliments well. Sulking was like my middle name.
There came a time when I would overcompensate for my ‘lack of beauty’ by being ‘too sweet’ with people who always tended to cross my boundaries. This would make me sick all the time. It felt like I had no spine of my own to stop body shamers, opinionated hotheads and orthodox aunties from making hurtful comments about me. In any budding romances, I would be extremely insecure and worried about losing the person.
Yet again I would let them treat me in not the most respectful ways and would rather lash out at my closest friends and cry over calls. Later on, when I did find better people who thought well of me and made me feel special, I was even quicker to take a step back and ruin possibilities. A simple condition, that most people did not have a fair knowledge of, had turned my life upside down and shook all my priorities. All of this stemmed from my low self-esteem and I kept searching for answers outside. The answer was in my ovaries!
What Helped Me Overcome PCOS Mood Swings?
After all the emotional turmoil and lack of coping mechanisms, I was left quite baffled about where my mental health was going. I knew I had to change this.
The first thing I did was get enrolled in a gym. Losing weight is the most effective treatment of PCOS and it ultimately brings your hormones back on track; making mood regulation a cakewalk. Secondly, I made it a point to befriend only those people who were appreciative, accepting and uplifting. I did not want any booers, no ignorant people who did not understand my condition, no believers of ‘conventional beauty’ and absolutely no unmotivated bad influencers.
Thirdly, I worked tirelessly to remind myself of all that I was capable of and that I had no reason to hate myself in the journey towards improvement. As long as I was growing every day, I did not have to sabotage myself just because I wasn’t my best on the day I started.
It was no longer the people who were critical of me, I was in fact, judging myself too critically. I was body-shaming myself every day and I was the one who was being cold and distant in relationships. My moods were not only unpredictable and undesirable for my friends and family, they were also making my life increasingly stressful. Who likes to sulk when no one is bothered anymore right? I knew I also had to avoid triggers that would make me anxious so as to avoid being put into that loop of bipolarity.
I avoided taking too many tasks all at once and began saying ‘no’ assertively. I decluttered my schedule and took one thing at a time, keeping my academic expectations reasonable.
I kept some physical activity consistent, even if it was a 10-minute walk in the evening. I improved my sleeping patterns slowly and strictly kept myself from spending my sleep-time scrolling over social media platforms. Occasionally, I also took refuge in a guided meditation for healing and health.
I actively let go of toxic influences and honestly reminded myself of my worth. I worked on my health and it translated itself on my face as well. For the first time, I started getting compliments about the way I carried myself, about how I dressed and looked every day and how confident I was! Life of course did remain full of highs and lows but I was able to communicate better instead of acting on impulses and throwing tantrums! My mood swings were only reduced to an occasional PMS and I don’t hold it against myself! I’ve literally grown up to celebrate the occurrence of a regular period!
Girlfriends are Like Medicines
A huge role was played by my friends who kept telling me that I was beautiful and also had a lot more to offer than just looks. These were some exceptionally supportive women with a clear mission to help me fight my way out of the pit of self-loathing. It is always stated that people with a strong social support system cope up with stressors or disorders better. My girlfriends were my army!
So, if you have PCOS and your moods are scattered like beads on a marble flooring, you should firstly take active measures to get rid of this tricky disorder, work on your self-image and remind yourself that PCOS does not steal anything from your femininity. You should keep toxic people and media miles away from yourself and never fall for what people think you are. Keep a firm check on how you react to situations. Be mindful of your responses and try not to let PCOS ruin your relationships.
As soon as you start having adverse reactions to situations, stop, take a breath and remind yourself that your hormones might just be playing pranks on you while the situation might not be as severe. Withdraw comfortably if you realize the triviality of the situation. Not everything is worth too much thought or your time.
Ultimately, I would like to make it clear that PCOS is different for every woman but the hormonal imbalance and the subsequent mood disorders are quite common. If I could deal with it, so can you. Go ahead and embrace yourself, polish yourself and love yourself. You are worth the best.
Edited by Annanya Chaturvedi