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Most people know that stress can have a powerful impact on their mental health. But did you know it can also have a significant effect on your physical health too? Yeah, it really does. And this includes our menstrual cycles, too.
You may notice stress changes your period. Maybe it comes early, doesn’t show up at all, or your cramps are more painful.
We spoke to OB-GYN (obstetrician and gynecologist) Dr. Barbara Levy to learn why and how stress can alter your cycle. She also explains when your cycle might return to normal and how to minimize stress.
These changes could be caused by emotional or physical stress (or both). It could be because you haven’t slept or eaten enough or because you’re physically exhausted, worried, or overwhelmed. And it’s these stressors that can affect your brain chemistry.
When you’re stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. High levels of cortisol make the hypothalamus (the part of your brain that controls your menstrual cycle) stop ovulation in its tracks. As ovulation is key to having a period, this can affect when — and if — your period starts.
We don’t know why, but everyone reacts differently to stress. Some people will notice these changes immediately. For others, they may take longer to kick in. And some people might never notice a physical response to stress at all.
And as some people are more sensitive to stress than others, it’s impossible to predict which kinds of stress (short term, long term, mild, moderate, severe) will lead to a change in your cycle. However, we do know that people with anxiety and depression are more likely to be stressed.
"Most people’s periods will return to normal within one cycle"
These changes shouldn’t be long term. “Typically, once we stop producing large amounts of the stress hormones, the changes will resolve,” Dr. Levy explains.
She adds that most people’s periods will return to normal within one cycle after the stressors are gone.
“My advice is to learn techniques for managing our response to stress, rather than trying to eliminate those things that stress us,” Dr. Levy says. “Some people can’t escape their stress. We can manage ourselves far better than controlling our environment or other people.”
These techniques can help limit your body’s release of stress hormones:
- Breathing exercises. You can try this simple calming breathing technique that can be done standing, sitting, or lying down. Whichever position you’re in, place your feet hip-width apart. Breathe in gently through your nose, letting your breath flow into your stomach as deep as is comfortable. You may find it helpful to count from one to five as you breathe in. (If you can’t reach five at first, that’s OK!) Breathe out gently and count to five again. Repeat this for three to five minutes.
- Mindfulness meditation. This technique is all about tuning in to — and being aware of — the present moment. And you can practice it anywhere, whether you’re sitting still or on the move. Wherever you are, try being quiet while paying attention to how your body feels as you breathe in and out, the sounds around you, and what you can smell or taste. If your mind wanders or gets lost in thought, gently bring your attention back to the present. It can be helpful to do this exercise at the same time every day.
You could also try:
- Connecting with others and talking about how you’re feeling
- Taking breaks from news stories
- Sticking to a sleep schedule, where you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, as much as possible under the circumstances
- Moving more and sitting less, even if you are in a limited area
- Avoiding smoking
- Limiting how much alcohol you drink
- Avoiding using drugs/substances in ways other than prescribed
When and if possible, contact a health care professional if the changes last for more than one cycle.
“You may think stress is causing the change, but other medical conditions should be ruled out,” Dr. Levy says. Besides your periods, long-term stress can lead to other serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, prediabetes, and obesity, if left untreated.
Less frequently, it’s possible to develop a condition called post-traumatic stress. This can mimic similar episodes in the future and may require specialized medical assistance.
Remember “stress is a part of being alive, and our bodies are well protected from most of the short-term impacts of stress — including weird periods,” Dr. Levy adds.
“That said, anyone who feels overwhelmed, out of control, or unable to function should seek medical help [when and] if they are able to.”