How does stress impact our menstrual health?
We’re all becoming more aware of the impact stress has on our mental health, but what about the impact it has on our menstrual health? Is there a link here too?
What is stress?
Stress is a natural response to what we see as a perceived threat or challenge. When we’re feeling stressed by something that’s happening to us, or something we’re thinking about in the future then our body tends to go into what is called - ‘fight or flight response’.
This response is perfect if we’re about to go into a situation that requires adrenalin (like a presentation or a job interview) but feels overwhelming if we’re feeling it when we’re not about to face something significant i.e. going to work each day or meeting friends. Stress prepares us to take action - it can even be re-framed as a positive thing in the right context. However, experiencing stress all the time isn’t helpful and this kind of everyday stress has an impact on our menstrual health.
Here are just some of the ways that stress impacts our menstrual health:
- Periods can become more irregular: Stress causes our bodies to produce more cortisol, which can disrupt the balance of hormones that regulate our cycles. This can lead to irregular periods, which can be shorter or longer than usual, or even missed. This can feed into feelings of stress i.e. I’m even more stressed because I’m not getting my period when I expect it. It’s worth using a period tracker app to help spot patterns- it may be that you can see that periods of high stress are when you’re most likely to miss a period, and better understand the factors that shape your cycle each month.
- Feeling more pain than usual when you get period: Of course feeling some cramps and pain are fairly normal, and can be relieved with hot water bottles/pain relief/herbal remedies, but if you’re feeling more stress than usual then the muscles in your body are more likely to be tense and prepared for attack. This can make cramps feel more severe.
- Heavier periods than you usually experience: Stress can cause our bodies to produce hormone-like substances that can cause heavy bleeding during our periods. This can be difficult for women who are already experiencing heavy bleeding. It’s worth going to your doctor if you are getting really heavy periods, as they can be related to other factors that are not stress-related, like polycystic ovary syndrome, fibroids, endometriosis and pelvic inflammatory disease (stay away from Google and book to see your GP if you’re worried as it’s never good to self-diagnose without a medical expert involved).
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and worse symptoms than usual: You may feel even moodier, more bloated, and your breasts more tender and this is the cortisol in your body which can make PMS symptoms more intense. No fun at all.
So what can we to decrease stress which will have a knock on impact on our menstrual health?
Practice self-care when things get rocky
It can feel like everyone is harping on about this right now but it’s because looking after yourself in small ways really does help in navigating stressful times. If you know that you are facing a stressful time i.e. a new job, a heavy workload, a difficult relationship then make sure you double down on self care. Make a list of things that make you feel better. This doesn’t have to be grand gestures like a day at the spa, but could be small things like walking outside, texting a friend, having a bath, or listening to a podcast. Think about the times when you feel really relaxed and ensure that each day you’re doing at least 2 things on the ‘feel-good’ list. This helps balance out your experience of stress by adding things that are beneficial and enjoyable. Also remind yourself that ‘this too will pass’ i.e. what you’re experiencing right now will not go on forever. Things change and you will feel better soon.
Get enough sleep
It’s super important that you get enough sleep so aim for 7-8 hours. Keep your phone downstairs, and try to avoid scrolling just before bed, and the minute you wake up (this can lead to us feeling overstimulated and agitated, and is definitely not calming). Read a book or listen to a podcast instead. Also try and make your bedroom a calming space and not one you associate with work (so put your laptop away at night).
Exercise and choose something you love doing
Aim for 30 minutes each day and choose an exercise you enjoy. Make it a habit i.e. doing it at a specific time. Exercise is one of those things that helps us physically and mentally. It helps even more if it’s outside. This helps us get those endorphins flowing and switches some of our overthinking off too.
Practice something that takes you back into the present moment
Whether you call it meditation or mindfulness or breathing exercises, it’s important to integrate things that help to turn off the ruminating that’s going on when you’re stressed. One interesting technique is to practice something called the ‘4-7-8 breathing technique’ (you can see lots of examples on YouTube). Inhale through your nose for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and exhale for 8 counts. It can feel a little weird, but often when we’re stressed we have a tendency to not breathe correctly and that makes our body feel worse and in more of a panic state. Meditation and mindfulness are useful too. See what works best for you.
Overall by practicing self-care, getting good quality sleep, exercising, and practicing relaxation techniques, we can help stress levels and keep our menstrual cycles in check and help navigate stress in our day to day lives.