By Kelly Sutter, Period Pro from the University of Central Florida College of Medicine
Have you ever worried about how stress affects your body? Between school, family, friends, and everything else going on in our lives and the world, you might be noticing some emotional burnout these days. Stress is a normal thing to feel in your life, but when you feel stressed for a prolonged length of time or have higher than normal levels of stress, it can take a toll on your body. Stress can have an effect on almost every major organ system in the body! It can affect your heart, lungs, hair, digestion, skin, and even your menstrual cycle.
The effect that stress has on your period is actually adaptive. When you’re stressed, your body tries to protect you from getting pregnant during an unstable time. Instead, it diverts energy to the life maintaining systems of your body. In normal, unstressed times, your brain sends hormonal signals to your reproductive system in a predictable way. The hypothalamus (in the brain) sends signals to the pituitary gland (also in the brain), and the pituitary gland sends signals to the ovaries to control estrogen and progesterone release. Estrogen and progesterone are the two primary period-controlling hormones. In times of high stress, a different hormone called cortisone (the “stress” hormone), can interfere with the normal pathway, and you may experience shorter/longer cycles, spotting in the middle of your cycle, lighter/heavier or even more painful periods than you typically experience.
Stress affects your body in more ways than you may realize. It is the way your body responds to both emotional and physical danger. Stress can also be chronic or acute, including things like traumatic events. Examples of emotional stress could be anything from family drama to a global pandemic! These can impact each person differently based on many other factors. Two main examples of physical danger that can cause stress are too much exercise and not enough nutrition. Both play very large roles in maintaining balance in your body. Over-exercising and under-eating can put your body in a state of panic.
How can you eliminate the impact of stress on your period?
Number one is to listen to your body! If your body has been in a period of stress for a while it may be difficult for you to recognize the signals it is giving you. When you know what to look for, stressors become more apparent. Start by making sure you are getting adequate nutrition and rest. Your body needs these things to function. Don’t worry about the number on the scale. You can have unhealthy habits at any weight. Try to pay more attention to how you feel. Are your feelings affecting the way you function or preventing you from doing the things you enjoy? You can also learn about your body by tracking your menstrual cycle; use a free period tracking app like Flo or Clue, or simply mark it on a calendar the old-fashioned way.
Reducing the stress in your life is, of course, easier said than done, but reflect on your core values and try to align your actions with them. If you are able to be true to yourself, then outside influences will have less of an effect on your personal stress levels. When dealing with any stress that is interfering with your daily life, don’t hesitate to seek professional support through a counselor or therapist.
Non-stress related reasons for irregular periods
If you are experiencing irregular periods, it is important to know that there are other possibilities besides stress that could be the cause. It can be related to pregnancy, thyroid disease, or other hormonal conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Sometimes irregular periods are a sign of another chronic illness like diabetes or inflammatory bowel disease. There are also drugs or medications that can affect the menstrual cycle. For example, if you stop taking birth control after being on it for a long time, it can be normal for your body to take around three months for your period to become regular again.
Missing one period or starting late during extremely stressful times is not unusual, but if there’s any possibility of pregnancy, make sure that’s the first thing you consider. In general, any big changes in the menstrual cycle can signal other health concerns, so checking in with your doctor or healthcare provider is always important.
Personal stories about stress and periods
If you’re reading this article because you think stress is affecting your cycle and now you’re even more stressed, because this information feels overwhelming, pause right there! Know that you are enough, and you have always been enough. A period is not what makes you a woman. There are steps you can take to reduce your stress. By reading this, you are already taking the first one–learning about your body and what’s normal and abnormal for you. There are so many people with periods who have been in your shoes. Here are some of their stories…
My first semester at college was a really big change for me. I had never had a problem with managing stress before, but this was another level and the organizational strategies I used in high school weren’t cutting it anymore. I lost the structure and support of my swim team after I graduated high school and I started getting really painful period cramps that I had never experienced, so I made an appointment with my doctor and implemented some stress management techniques in my routine like meditation and a couple hours of exercise per week and as I got my stress under control, my cycle became normal again!Nozomi L., age 20
I was a teaching assistant at the beginning of this school year. When I was asked to step into a leadership role at work by taking over the homeroom teacher’s role, I simultaneously had started working on my job application process for the next year. This was my first year of teaching so I was stressed and at the same time I couldn’t fall asleep until 2 or 3 a.m. on weeknights because of the nerves I was feeling about my job application. I felt like I was running on adrenaline for two months. I skipped my period entirely for the month of November and did not get it until December. When I got it in December, my flow was particularly heavy. When I stopped applying for jobs and went on winter break, the things that were stressing me out went away and I was thankful to see that my body was returning to its normal cycle.Lauren D., age 23
In high school, there were many things in my life that were out of control, so I became hyper focused on what I thought I could control. I began over-exercising and under-eating to the point where I was running 10 miles on the treadmill in the middle of the night and still, I would be afraid to eat a full bowl of oatmeal in the morning. I lost my period, and I was so scared that my actions were going to cause me to lose my dream of being a mother in the future. With the help of my support system and my doctor I was about to make some necessary changes. My average cycle was 90 days for a year before my body was able to recover and get back on track. I wish I had shown my body the love that it has shown me. If you feel like you can relate to my story, please reach out to someone you trust and talk to them about it!Elise S., age 22