It was just another normal day of my life as a postdoc, and I was sitting at my desk trying to write on a blank page. But words wouldn’t come. I stood up, went to get some water, and tried again. This time I could write one sentence…and after that, time to check my email again. That day went on with events like this and increasing feelings of guilt and anxiety about my lack of productivity…procrastination at its purest state. So, I ended up full of negative thoughts about myself and questioning whether I was good enough to be a scientist.
“Why couldn’t I focus? I just had some very productive days, finishing things, totally in the flow. And now this.” Luckily, some days later my brain cooperated again. I was motivated, full of new ideas, and had creative long days filled with productive writing. But not for long…the good and bad days, the days feeling on fire and the days feeling unable to be a scientist, seemed to follow a cycle.
Fast forward ten years, the pandemic had intensified everything in my life, and I needed to pay attention to my emotional and mental health more than ever before, especially if I wanted to work productively. One day two women appeared in my Instagram feed, Kate Northrup and Alisa Vitti authors of the books Do Less and WomanCode respectively. Their message shocked me: women can boost their productivity by planning their work around the menstrual cycle.
Our menstrual cycle does not only affect our bodies and emotions, but it also affects our brains, and we´ll be more effective at doing certain tasks in some days of that cycle. So, for women in science, menstruation is not just part of our “life” is also part of our “work” in that desired balance.
Before we continue, I´d like to emphasize that I believe that women, independently of the day of their cycle, can complete anything they want. Only some days will cost us more energy and time than others.
Evidence on changes in brain activation, cognitive performance, and emotions during the menstrual cycle is quickly accumulating. And while the effects on emotion-related changes are more consistently found, other aspects are hard to replicate. Experimental issues aside, you can identify the following four phases (for more details you can have a look at the topic I wrote in this blog post):
The REFLECTION phase
This is the phase the days you are menstruating, and depending on the woman, it can start some days before. In my case starts around 5 days before, and finishes around the second day of my cycle. This is an “inward” phase… and you may feel more reflective, wanting to read and learn, and be by yourself.
The CREATION phase
You will identify this phase because you feel full of energy again. It is a starting phase, where you’ll have lots of ideas, and will feel motivated to start new projects. Usually lasts until a couple of days before ovulation. In this phase, there is an elevated activity in the hippocampus (left hemisphere), which is a predictor of overall performance. It’s a good moment to brainstorm, plan your experiments and general work, and start to write your papers and projects. It’s my favorite phase!
The COMMUNICATION phase
This phase lasts ca. 5 days around the ovulation, and it’s when the characteristics of the previous phase peak, including verbal fluency. This is an “outward” phase. You may feel more courageous to ask for those things you kept postponing, to discuss your work, or give a presentation!
The COMPLETION phase
After your ovulation and before the reflection phase starts, you have this completion phase. In this phase the brain activation changes to an enhancement of the right hemisphere, and attention for details rather than a global vision. You may feel like wrapping up projects. I personally struggle finishing things, so planning a resting period after this phase motivates me to get things done!
After tracking my cycle and planning my work according to the phase I am in, I now manage my time more efficiently. But especially, I also manage my energy. I don’t torture myself when I cannot focus and write and I just feel like reading and learning. Now I teach online courses on “Mindful Scientific Writing”, and students and scientists that read my blog keep finding that this piece of the puzzle of being a woman in science has changed that common feeling of “guilt”.
Menstruation is still stigmatized in our societies, even though about a quarter of the population has a menstrual cycle. As scientists, it is challenging to fully plan our work around this cycle. But we could adjust that work as much as possible. For example, planning fewer physically or mentally intensive tasks during the menstrual phase (or even taking days off!). This can then allow us to enter the follicular phase with more energy to optimize the creativity that characterizes that phase. The creativity that we need especially when it’s time to write.
Science and academia as an institution were designed by men for men (and we could be more specific adding “heterosexual white”, but that’s the topic for another discussion). Women in science often feel overwhelmed by trying to fit into this system. It is a similar feeling to being the whole day inside a tight pair of jeans (the real ones, not the elastic type). You can barely breathe when you sit unless you unbutton them. And when you take them out you have marks all over your legs and belly. The pandemic has shown us something…we are done with jeans, we just want to walk in leggings.