I used to just put a small dot in my homework planner, but I could barely find the dates again later. Finally, I made my own cycle chart zine and designed it to be used for 10 years. Then I could look back and notice how my period had changed over the years. I could also use it to see if any life events changed my cycle. I got much more comfortable with my period once I started writing down the details.
But first, what’s a menstruation cycle?
For people who get periods, the reproductive system involves four steps, which happen in a cycle. Paying attention to each of the stages of menstruation as they happen in your body – and noticing how you feel – is a great way to focus on your health and wellbeing.
Doing the things that make you feel best at each stage can easily become a very healthy and useful habit!
Phase 1: Period
A period actually comes at the end of the whole process, but it’s the easiest sign to spot (no pun intended!), so we count each new cycle from the first day of the period. During this phase, your uterus cramps or squeezes to help you physically drain away blood and tissue.
You can also feel very emotionally drained. You might feel tired or slow, and early in your period you might feel a deep heaviness in your body. Cramps can feel worse on the first couple of days of your period.
During this phase, you may feel like hibernating or re-watching your favourite telly. You may find you feel better after doing a relaxing activity, and that you feel worse if you have a very busy schedule. On the other hand, some people prefer to stay active and busy during this phase!
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Phase 2: Follicular phase
This phase varies in length, and it’s usually the reason that one person’s cycle might be a different length to another person’s.
While you are in this phase, your body is thinking about being productive and creative – it’s literally maturing an egg! The sensation can work emotionally too. This point in your cycle is a great time to try out a new creative project or sporting activity, or to hang out with new friends for the first time. Why not experiment for a few months and try to do new stuff while you’re growing a new egg? Just remember: Not everyone notices this to be true about their bodies. So don’t worry if it doesn’t seem to work for you!
Phase 3: Ovulation
This is the phase of the menstrual cycle when some people find they have the most energy. Some find it helpful to try new things here, but others feel too excited and want to just be social and have fun.
You may feel excited or aroused more easily, or even find people you fancy are more attractive. While you’re ovulating, or just after, you may even find it easier to do homework you’ve been putting off. Your mood may help you tackle anything that takes a lot of stamina and determination.
Phase 4: Luteal phase
This phase is usually about the same length of time for everyone – about 14 days. However, if you ovulate earlier in your cycle than most people, you may feel like it lasts a loooooong time. It’s easy to go from feeling creative to feeling cranky.
You may feel paranoid or like nobody likes you. It can feel really rubbish and you may have to work hard to convince yourself that it’s your hormones that are making you jumpy. Try to remind yourself that little things are no big deal, and take a break or a time out if you feel like you’re going to lose your temper. If you wait a day or two, you may realise that you were about to get very angry about something that isn’t as big a deal as you thought.
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It took me a long time to recognise this behaviour in myself, even though I was studying periods! Sometimes I would feel argumentative, or like everyone was out to get me, and would go to bed angry. Then I would wake up the next morning and realise sheepishly that I had just started my period. It took me way too long to notice that I’d been very grumpy about something unimportant AGAIN, on the exact same day of my cycle. Every month.
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Now, let’s discuss charting your cycle
Now that we’ve talked about the different stages of the menstrual cycle, you may be able to recognise which phase you’re in. Part of managing your period (and a very big step towards owning it!) is charting your menstrual cycle. This means keeping track of your period and other details of your whole cycle in a chart or graph.
There are a lot of fun, creative ways to do this. You can design a cycle chart by hand, using a pen and a ruler or compass. Or you could do it on a computer, using a table or a spreadsheet. You can decorate it with stickers, collages or your own illustrations, and use lots of different colours. It can be something you leave on a shelf, carry with you, or display on your wall as a giant poster!
You might want to make columns and have one big chart for all the cycles in a year, or draw circles with wedges to have a new chart for each cycle. Here is the most useful information to show:
- The start date (when you get your period)
- The duration (the number of days your period lasts)
- The length of cycle in days (this is the time from the start of one period to the start of the next one)
It’s also worth having a box or separate section each month to log changes in your body, stressful events, happy events, travel and any illnesses or injuries. All of these things can impact your cycle length or be a sign of changes in your hormones. You could also add a page or a section for the end of each year. It’s an opportunity for you look back and sum up your average data and how you felt about your period that year.
Keep it simple
If you don’t want to create a chart, you can also use a regular diary or calendar. A calendar design makes it easier to track your whole menstrual cycle and gives you space to log signs of ovulation and signs of PMT. Just remember not to throw it out at the end of the year – or you can copy your data and keep it somewhere safe.
This may sound like a lot to do, or like it’s hard to remember, but it is actually pretty fun and it’s a really healthy habit to have! It will also be really helpful if your doctor ever asks you whether you have regular periods. Some adults use their chart when they start thinking about their fertility.
With 12 months in a year, you might be expecting 12 cycles per year too. The reality is, you could have anywhere from 11 to 16 full cycles, depending on how long your cycle is. The dates don’t exactly line up once per month.
Using an app
There are several different phone apps that help you track your cycle. They let you keep track of information easily and learn interesting stats about your cycle more quickly and easily than you could add them up yourself. There are now some apps that have been designed to be safer for use by young people, but only download and use one if you have permission from your grown-up.
Apps can be really useful, but they do have a few downsides. A lot of them were released by companies who sell menstrual products, and the apps are a way for them to advertise to new customers. Other apps sell your data to companies who want to learn more about how to advertise to you. It’s more like they want to own your period!
If you decide to use an app now or in future, choose an app that is:
- Open about what it does with your data
- Recommended by menstruation experts
- Has privacy and safety in mind
- Inclusive and easy to navigate, with lots of colours and tracking options
Avoid apps that are:
- Sponsored by a particular menstrual product or company
- Secretive about what they do with your personal informationAll about wanting you to post pictures or speak to other members using social media
- Full of stereotypes, like assuming all customers love flowers or the colour pink
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What if I’m off the chart?
Some periods don’t fit within the range. You may start late or stop early, or have a heavier or lighter flow, or a longer or shorter cycle. Sometimes there is a medical reason for it, like a change in hormones or diet, stress or illness. If your cycle is out of a lot of the ranges here, or if it suddenly changes in some way, you can talk to your doctor.
This is an excerpt from Own Your Period: A Fact-filled Guide to Period Positivity by menstruation expert and educator Chella Quint. Chella coined the phrase ‘period positive’ in 2006 and founded #periodpositive to use humour and joy to challenge menstrual taboos, and find long-term solutions to period poverty.