Flowering Fields - A follow-up to Barren Wasteland
How does self-compassion relate to periods? Also, how close of an acquaintance does a guy have to be for me to be able to excitedly tell him that I got my period back again? (Is it ever ok? My dad seemed to be a little disinterested).
Back in June, I shared my struggle with not having had a period for over a year and how, after becoming obsessed with reading research articles on hormone dysfunction in runners, I had to finally accept that I had dug myself into a hole of stress and injury that would take some time to crawl out of. I was surprised with how many people could relate to my experience. Many of them were also told by health professionals that their situation was totally normal, when in fact amenorrhea is linked to many health issues, not to mention women need estrogen to feel happy. I want to share how I’ve approached running since then and some things that I think helped me get back to feeling normal and allow my period return on October 4, 2016 (approximately).
First: eating foods that make me feel satisfied. We are surrounded by a diet culture, and since freshman year in college, I had been internalizing many diet culture phrases. For example, I distinctly remember a professional runner posting a quote on Instagram that said “Don’t reward yourself with food after a workout. You are not a dog.” These negative, food-demonizing quotes are meant to bring about shame and make us fight food, leading to restrained eating and taking away its joy. They are more harmful than most people realize, and they are everywhere. They also often cause us to judge our bodies harshly. Add to this the fact that I was getting my master’s in nutrition, and my tendency to overanalyze and stress about food choices reached a peak last year. It’s not that I was counting calories, but I would overanalyze certain choices and feel guilty whenever I “overindulged.” And, I thought that these feelings were totally normal. It took me a while to realize, and then admit, that even while eating enough, the stress that I sometimes allowed food to cause was messing with my body.
Food is meant to satisfy us. Building it up to something more, something that is morally good or bad, leads to cycles of restriction and overeating. These days, I try to appreciate what my body does for me. I do this by listening to it and what it is craving (in the nutrition world, this is called Intuitive Eating). Sometimes this means dark chocolate after dinner, and sometimes it means baking a loaf of banana bread. And sometimes it’s no dessert (but usually there’s dessert). I also started fueling better for late afternoon workouts and making sure to eat as soon as possible after finishing a run – something someone studying nutrition should have been doing already.
I’m also trying to stress less, especially with running, this thing I am doing because I enjoy it and love it. Amenorrhea in athletes, while far from completely understood, is highly linked with stress hormones such as cortisol. After taking a break from running, I started back with runs and workouts with the goal of staying as stress-free as possible. This has been tough with my dietetic internship, but I have great friends willing to run with me at weird times or time me in workouts. During some rotations, I’ve managed to get out early and work out with the Michigan team. It has definitely given me a new appreciation for training partners and a coach willing to meet me at the track at 6 pm. I’m slowly getting back into shape and instead of beating myself up after a bad workout, I have been kind with myself and focused on things I did well.
Since getting more interested in intuitive eating and the non-diet approach I somewhat described above, I have been looking into research on how it improves body image. One study in undergraduates looked at self-compassion and its relationship to body image. They found that on days when the women in the study had high self-compassion (described as “a care-based form of positive regard that promotes self-acceptance even in the face of failure”) relative to their own usual level, they were able to fend off body image concerns when they were around “body-focused others.” In other words, on days when they unconditionally accepted themselves, they were able to brush off things like fat-talk surrounding them and love their bodies. I like to relate these findings to running, too. Not only does being self-compassionate help us embrace our bodies, but also if we are kind to ourselves even after a bad race or workout, we can maintain the level of confidence and self-love needed to move on from it and continue to improve.
Around September, I was pretty frustrated when I still hadn’t gotten my period even after a good break and a gradual ease back into running. An endocrinologist I had been seeing was trying to get me to take estrogen. She told me to start it on October 1st so I could get into a monthly routine, but part of me was still holding onto the idea that I could get back to normal by lowering my stress levels and eating better. So I held off. And I’m so glad I did, because a few days later I had proof that my new way of approaching running and eating was bringing me back to a healthy state. And I will continue to make some people feel weird by bringing it up fairly often.