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Sometimes It's OK To Feel The Feels, Sweetheart

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Tell her how you really feel: Dr. Julie Holland is asking women to embrace their inner "moody bitches."

Let me back up.

The Manhattan-based psychiatrist has noticed a shift in her female patients. Twenty years ago, when Holland started her practice, she says, patients came to her because they were having trouble sleeping, were crying frequently or generally not feeling well — "but not really understanding what was going on with them and not really knowing what to do about it."

Nowadays, with heavier advertising by pharmaceutical companies and with more women taking psychoactive medication, they ask: "Which one of these medications should I take?" Not "if," but "which."

In her book Moody Bitches, Holland discusses the hormonal cycles that alter women's moods throughout the month and during key transitions in their lives. Women shouldn't automatically medicate away these changes, she writes: They should accept and maybe even respect them instead.

"Sometimes it's OK to feel anxious or to feel sad, and it's going to go away," she says. "Not every emotion has to be treated as a symptom that needs to be eradicated."

The book, published last year and recently out in paperback, has been criticized for a few things. Among them: It undercuts efforts to destigmatize mental health care; the message is jumbled; the science is squishy.

For one, there's the assertion that oral birth control can hurt your libido, which she calls the pills' "dirty little secret" in the book. Overall, the research is mixed on this, as BuzzFeed has pointed out. (You can read more about the side effects of oral contraceptives on Bedsider, a website about birth control.)

Holland says she encourages her patients to use non-hormonal birth control to maintain their natural hormone fluctuations. On a related note, Holland told me she did wish she hadn't given so much weight to some preliminary research on the supposed differences between men's and women's brains.

I'll throw in another potential pitfall: The experiences described in the book aren't particularly diverse. Holland's patients are women in their 30s and 40s in New York who can afford to see her (she says she doesn't take insurance). While the book doesn't explicitly narrow in on those patients, it does focus almost exclusively on straight women, and talks a lot about forming a family. The sections on menopause and alternatives to pharmaceuticals could have wider appeal, though.

Beyond these points, it's interesting to think about how women's emotions are perceived by society and by women themselves. I was surprised to hear that of the two provocative words in Holland's book title, "moody" was the one that caused the biggest stir.

"Women hate to be called moody," Holland says. "Women hate to be accused of being hysterical, being emotional. It's disempowering."

On second thought, it's not that surprising. Holland says she first used the phrase "moody bitches" because she found it amusing. It also hits a nerve, apparently.

Women have been getting the message that moodiness is weakness for quite some time (did you know the word "hysteria" stems from the Greek word for uterus?). Holland counters that assumption by suggesting that any extra sensitivity during menstruation can make women more perceptive, and that a bit of anxiety may make people better at their jobs.

There are plenty of us who would benefit from a walk in the park — and maybe smoking some pot — before taking prescription medication, she says: "Just being in your body, being present with your environment, not multitasking so much, is a way to sort of calm your whole system down and to feel better."

Yes, some women do need medication for mood disorders. Holland doesn't argue that. She does agree that women who don't necessarily need medication are getting it, while women who could really use it might not be.

"There's a little bit of an unequal distribution of medical attention, and that's — that's America," she says. "I mean, we've got real socioeconomic differences that drive a lot of our health care discrepancies."

Wherever you fall, can we at least agree not to feel bad about feeling bad — or about feeling good, for that matter?

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Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for NPR.org and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.
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