What it feels like to have heavy periods and period cramps

15th February, 2023 • 10 min read

A surprising number of women say their period problems don’t get taken seriously. So boost your confidence by reading how other women deal with heavy flow, period cramps and mood swings. Remember: you’re not alone!

Why it’s time to talk frankly about painful periods

Periods can be a monthly drag, forcing many women to cope with symptoms including painful cramps, heavy bleeding, irregular cycles, acne flares, mood swings and even hormonal headaches.

“On average, you'll have your period for 2,535 days of your life – so it’s a big part of your health and wellbeing,” says Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert. “Of course, not everyone gets period problems – but if you do, they can start to dominate your life.”

Sharing stories allows us to compare our experiences – and work out when something isn’t right and we should get help. So read on for some honest first-hand experiences of the sorts of period problems women are dealing with.

You can also read more about periods: what’s normal and what’s not, including symptoms, self-care and effective treatments for period problems.

How social taboos stop women getting support

“Things are changing, but although period problems are really common, it can still be a bit of a taboo to mention things like clots, flooding or PMS depression when you’re talking to family, friends or coworkers,” says Dr Ann. “There can be an attitude that it’s all just ‘too much information’.”

In fact, many women say they can’t admit to their workplace why they’re sick, because of the stigma. A survey by HR magazine – a leading online journal for HR professionals in the UK – found nearly a quarter of female employees said they’d lied to employers to take time off work due to period pain.

“I told my boss I had a cold”

Emma* explains how she was too embarrassed to tell her boss what was really wrong when she left work in the middle of the day with period pain.

“When my (female) boss saw how unwell I was, she kindly suggested I go home. I told her the next day I must be coming down with a cold.

“Why didn’t I just say, ‘I have bad period pains’? I know it’s because I don’t want to be seen as weak, and I don’t want to play into stereotypes that women can’t work or have important jobs because of their periods.”

“My period pain was dismissed as normal”

Kim*, who was later diagnosed with endometriosis, says her severe period pains were dismissed as normal by various healthcare professionals.

“It wasn’t until I had another absolutely horrendous bout and went to my doctor out-of-hours that he could see for himself just how much pain I was in – a pain much worse than labor pain – and I was taken seriously and referred on.

“The response after ultrasound and MRI scans was basically, ‘blimey, you’ve got a massive endometriotic cyst, how have you been living with that?’. And finally I was able to acknowledge how ill I was.”

“I hardly mentioned it”

“Despite the fact that the pain made it so hard for me to go to work, it took me a year to tell my boss,” says Aliza. “And I hardly mentioned it to my closest friends and family.”

What period pain feels like and the impact it has

Have you ever taken the day off work or canceled weekend plans because your period pain was so bad? Or booked your summer vacation to suit your cycle, as you know your flow is so heavy? Some women say period pain can take over their lives.

“Period cramps feel like your abdomen is in a vice”

Valerie paints a vivid picture of what period cramps feel like.

“All you want to do is sleep and sit on something soft. If you have front cramps, it feels like someone has your abdomen in a vice. If they’re back cramps, it feels like someone is kicking you in the tailbone over and over.”

“My periods affect my sleep”

“Even when I can cope with the pain, my periods affect my sleep, and make me slower and less productive,” says Emma*.

“My period pain was so bad – but a diagnosis made sense of it”

“My period pain was sometimes so bad it gave me diarrhea,” says Colette Harris, Healthily Chief Content Editor.

“I remember times in my 20s when I was out with friends and had to just keep going back to the bathroom and sitting there for ages, because the cramps were so intense I couldn't tell if I would have flooding or diarrhea. It happened once during a work lunch with a client – and I felt so fortunate that she understood when I told her what was going on.

“It was only in my 30s that I finally got diagnosed with endometriosis, alongside polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and the pain element finally made sense.

“The best tip I ever got for pain management was from a nurse, who told me to alternate acetaminophen (paracetamol) and ibuprofen: so take 2 paracetamol, then 2 hours later take ibuprofen, then 2 hours later paracetamol again. So you don’t take more than the recommended doses, but you do get more relief every 2 hours. Along with heat patches and gentle walking, it made a massive difference.”

Heavy bleeding needs special care

Ever felt period blood soak your underwear while you’re at work, or had to scrub a mattress because of your overnight blood flow? These women have – and here’s how they coped.

“I had to have ablation to give me back my freedom”

After pills and medication didn’t work, Natasha had endometrial ablation surgery – where tissue is removed from the lining of your womb (endometrium) – to cure her heavy periods. She says she came to her decision out of sheer desperation.

“Honestly, I just had enough. I couldn't wear the right clothes. I couldn’t exercise the week before I had my period because… I didn't want to be caught out at the gym. I couldn’t sleep. I was getting headaches, dizziness, slowness, diarrhea and constipation.”

Natasha says the surgery has given her freedom and she just doesn’t have any anxiety about her period anymore, or depression.

“I had to lie in the fetal position until it stopped”

The Australian Olympic athlete Chloe Dalton remembers the impact of heavy bleeding on her work and training.

“I didn’t feel like I could do things normally without having to almost take time out to lie in a fetal position until it subsided.

“I didn't necessarily feel comfortable telling my employer or my coach that I was really struggling… I almost felt like I had to push through.”

“Mirena stopped my heavy periods”

“I’d always had heavy periods and dreaded them every month,” says Jo Waters, Healthily Lead Writer. “In my late 30s, with 3 young children under 5, they seemed to get a lot worse – my doctor said it could be the perimenopause. I’d regularly get clots and flooding, and it left me with no energy.

“My doctor suggested a hormonal IUD: a form of birth control (contraception), which could also reduce bleeding, although there was no guarantee. I decided it was worth a try. After a few months of irregular spotting, my periods became lighter, then stopped completely. It was so liberating to be free of them.”

What period mood swings can feel like

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can cause mood swings, irritability, anxiety and low mood during the week or 2 before your period. Sometimes it can be pretty unbearable, as these women reveal.

“Rage and tears week before my period”

Ashley* says she noticed a pattern of mood swings before her period, which started the year after she had her baby.

“A week before my period, I feel blinding rage and really, really depressed.”

She said she also felt “super angry.” She even sometimes woke up in the middle of the night with a tight chest and headache, as well as being irritable and snappy during the day.

“I became emotional and tearful”

“During perimenopause, I found myself getting emotional and crying more at sad TV programmes or stories from my friends, or even if someone gave me a compliment,” says Colette. “So I would avoid chatting to friends, and say to people who were being kind at work ‘don't be nice to me’ to stop myself crying in front of them.

“I’m normally a very consistent and chilled out person, but I would get snappy with people – about things like someone jumping in front of me in line, or keeping me talking when I had things to do. And I would want to comfort eat – chocolate, cake, mochas – stuff that lifted my mood. Then I would feel guilty about being snappy and eating too much!”

“Utterly overwhelmed”

Clár, who has anxiety and depression, says although she’d always experienced cramps, swollen breasts, acne and irritability, her energy and emotional symptoms began to worsen before her period.

“Intense mood swings, sheer despair, lethargy, and a lot of crying. I noticed fluctuations in my mood and energy across my cycle. How I would feel and function each day was a gamble, and in the days before my period, I noticed the feeling of being utterly overwhelmed was amplified.”

“My menstrual mood swings were PMDD”

Sometimes, women can have monthly mood swings that are extreme, which may be a symptom of a severe type of PMS called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). (Find out more about the difference between PMS and PMDD.)
Heather says she felt completely hopeless, and even suicidal. She would fall into a highly emotional state for a few days, get her period and then feel fine.

“Frequently during these episodes, I questioned if I even wanted to be alive. I was terrified. Despite having had depression for decades, these episodes were the first time I had ever felt out of control of my actions.
“Then I made the connection with my period… When I came across the description of PMDD, it was like reading an account of my own life. I finally had a reason for my monthly breakdowns.”

Read about when to see a doctor about PMS/PMDD.

Perimenopause can bring irregular cycles

The perimenopause can bring with it problematic periods, with women reporting erratic and irregular periods, and the uncertainty of not knowing if their period will be heavy or light.

“I’d been so incredibly regular for so many years”

Lorna says the first time she became aware she was in perimenopause was when her periods started becoming irregular at 51. “You could normally set a clock to how regular my periods were – every 28 days and to the hour. When they didn’t start at 28 days, I knew it was the start of menopause, as I’d been so incredibly regular for so many years.”

“I’ve had 2 lots of quite light bleeding in 16 months ”

“I didn’t have periods for 6 months,” says Maggie, 49. “Then I started a relationship and I got 1 period in the same month, then again after a gap of about 8 months, and again some light bleeding for about 2 or 3 days, and that was a couple of months ago. So I think in about 16 months I’ve had 2 lots of quite light bleeding.”

Where to find out more about period problems

Read more problem-solving, expert-led articles in our comprehensive guide to periods – covering everything from what’s normal and what’s not, to heavy bleeding, period pain and PMS.

*Some names have been changed.

Quotes are the views of the authors of these statements and are not necessarily the views of Healthily, its medical team or its writers.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.