Illustration by Aparna Sarkar

How Your Hellish Period Can Become a Powerful Creative Force

We asked an artist, a gynecologist, and neurologists if our creativity spikes when we bleed.

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Aug 18 2016, 4:35pm

Illustration by Aparna Sarkar

While attending Virginia Commonwealth University's Summer Studio Program this year, artist Lara Mossler decided to create a sculpture every day. The 28-day program happened to correspond perfectly with the length of a menstrual cycle; each sculpture she made would reflect her hormone levels on the day she created it.

For each piece, she started with a meditation: She sat down and relaxed, breathing in and out steadily. She closed her eyes and thought about moving her hormones around her body, bringing them to her chest, her back, and her shoulders. She noted any emotions or sensations: cramps, tenderness, aches, bloating, or fatigue. When she opened her eyes, she was prepared to guide her creative practice according to her hormones.

Read more: Bloody Brilliant: The Artist Turning Period Stains Into Statement Jewelry

"During the luteal phase, which is the phase right before you menstruate, I was making a lot of tents for some reason," Mossler told me over the phone. "I guess the thinking behind it was that I was feeling very vulnerable in that phase."

Toward the end of the residency, her unorthodox method was starting to draw some attention. "It was a really personal process, but the response was interesting," she said. "What people were interested in was how I was arriving at these sculptures. I had designed this meditation, but it was pretty much all in my head. Other artists started asking me if they could use my meditation process in their own creative practices."

Mossler has since created a journal, which she calls The 28 Days Journal: A New Hormonal Calendar, and transcribed her meditation process—vetted by monks and the director of Global Spiritual Life at NYU—for anyone to record how they feel each day of their menses. She says that using fertility-awareness methods can harness your period's creative power.

I was making a lot of tents for some reason.

She recently put out an open call for female artists to use the journal to reflect on their cycles and is planning to exhibit the submissions she gets in September. In the interest of getting a wide age range of women to get in touch with their cycles, Mossler sent a journal to 19-year-old photographer Lula Hyers, and Hyers and her friends are making videos to represent their daily fluctuations. She is also doing work with an Argentinian filmmaker, Leticia Bernaus; both Bernaus's and Mossler's cycles start on the full moon. They hold meditation sessions over Skype and, for her journal, Bernaus is interpreting her hormonal state by taking a photograph each day.

"We are perfectly synchronized, and we thought it would be cool to see if we were getting the same visual responses or if our creativity is spiking at the same time. That kind of thing," Mossler said.

Mossler told me her initial project was partly inspired by her research into societies where women use their periods as a time to separate from men and go off to create, as well as by the book Woman: An Intimate Geography. "The book's author says of high levels of estrogen, 'It's as powerful as having rose-colored glasses on,'" she explained.

In my experience, periods suck. My period, in particular, is painful. There's a point during each month when I can anticipate it: I feel fatigued and headache-y. I get sad or irritable. I want to eat everything (that is paleo) within arm's reach. When I start menstruating, my cramps are off-the-charts horrible, and I don't want to eat anything. But Mossler insists that the way to change our periods from a test of endurance into a positive asset is to simply give in to them.

Perhaps there's something to it. Many women are ditching birth control pills for apps that track their menstrual cycles as an alternative method to avoid getting pregnant. (Though research says few of these apps are accurate.) But that data can tell you something else, too. The different phases of our cycles have corresponding hormonal shifts that can regulate everything from our moods to our physical responses.

Fertility awareness app, Natural Cycles. Photo via Natural Cycles

"For some women, hormones, on some level, are going to affect their brains and emotions, and how they perceive things. And they absolutely change during different times in their cycles," Dr. Candace Howe, a practicing OB/GYN, told me. "Our cycle starts on the first day of our period. Then 14 days later, on average, most women ovulate, and progesterone is released by the corpus luteum. If you're not pregnant, the egg dies and progesterone drops. That's the luteal phase, which also comes with a drop in estrogen. Then your cycle starts again and the estrogen starts to increase."

Tracking that data over time, Mossler says, she learned a lot about her body—and how to use symptoms typically negatively associated with PMS; she prefers to call them sensations to strip away any bad connotations. If emotions are fodder for art, then our periods could certainly provide a lot of raw material. In her New Hormonal Calendar, there's a place to write what you're feeling, both physically and mentally, and then bubble in where you think your hormone levels are, which is apparently a skill you can learn. The low-tech aspect of the journal is a plus, Mossler says, because if you don't want to write how you feel, you can just draw it.

"It's just about the feeling," she explained when I asked her how exactly one can start measuring their hormones. "I've probably had 200 cycles so far—and I probably have 600 more to go—so I have a good idea of how these things make me feel. I designed a meditation specifically to take time to notice my hormones. I'm not saying that I can just magically read my hormones, but I try to be really aware of my underlying emotions. Maybe I'm nostalgic, or sad, or anxious, and from my perspective, the hormones are definitely contributing to that."

Image courtesy of Lara Mossler

It's hard to find any evidence on how our hormones are linked to our ability to create outside of New Age books and blogs; the concept would fit nicely at a Spirit Weavers gathering. During Mossler's 28-day project, she said she found that there were phases of her cycle where she was more creative than others—sort of. She experienced periods in her cycle where she was more inwardly focused than others and was able to get more work done. When she was at the peak of ovulation, she realized it was difficult to focus. "I feel sexually aroused and very powerful," she laughed. "It was hard for me to want to go into the studio and meditate and make a sculpture. And of course, menstruation was a difficult phase to create, because my hormones were at an all-time low, and I was experiencing a lot of pain. I just wanted to curl up and be hydrated and cozy, but I realized, from an ideation perspective, I definitely had more ideas."

Although many female artists have turned to their periods for inspiration, there is no research on how menstruation affects creativity specifically. Dr. Reagan Wetherill and Dr. Teresa Franklin have been examining whether our brains actually respond differently when we're on our periods. The researchers have been working on a series of studies that explore whether there are optimal times in a woman's menstrual cycle to quit smoking. During our conversation, one thing they stressed is that everyone reacts to hormones differently—but there are some generalizations.

For one, the results of their research, which, in part, mapped functional connectivity to the reward-related centers in our brains during different phases of the menstrual cycle, confirmed an old stereotype: Women are on their periods are more impulsive.

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Their research also showed that, in the early luteal phase, before menstruation, we tend to be more focused and disciplined. Unfortunately, that doesn't last. "After a woman gets her period and her estrogen starts to rise in her follicular phase, she can get a little crazy," Dr. Franklin said. "Our hypothesis is that women get a lot of reward during that phase. We found that in this region—which is called the anterior cingulate cortex, which usually has cognitive control over reward-related structures—follicular females had less functional connectivity."

But this isn't necessarily bad (unless you're trying to wean off cigarettes). Dr. Franklin said that less functional connectivity during ovulation "could lead to increased creativity or risk-taking in a good way."

"We tend to look at these things as problems," she added, referring to the emotional and physical fluctuations of menstruation, "but it's also what makes us who we are."