Knowledge is power
Knowledge is power. How many times when you’ve discovered something about how your body works have you felt reassured?
Sometimes, simply the facts enable you to deal with a difficulty more easily, and that’s enough. Other times, that new piece of information empowers you to make changes to how you think or the way you live your life. Either way that knowledge has had a powerful effect on you.
As we’re in difficult times at the moment with the coronavirus situation, an understanding of how your body and your menstrual cycle respond to stress might reassure you that what you’re experiencing is normal and healthy, as well as help you to support yourself through challenging times.
Why the stress reaction is so useful
The stress reaction is essential to keep us alive when we are in a life-threatening situation.
When our senses detect a threat, the nervous system empowers us to deal with it through a fight-or-flight-or-freeze reaction. We’ll rapidly weigh up the risk and how best to avoid it by either standing to fight it, running away or becoming frozen still until the threat goes away.
Interestingly, the scientific research was originally carried out on men, and when they tested women, they discovered a fourth type of stress reaction: stay-and-soothe, which means remaining in the hazardous situation and trying to placate it.
This stress reaction is bodily as it evolved from humans having to deal with physical threats but it also affects us mentally and emotionally. We might argue back or withdraw or do nothing or negotiate to calm the situation.
The body produces various hormones which increase blood flow to the muscles, raise blood sugar levels, increase our heart and breathing rate and slow down functions that are not relevant at that moment like digestion. At the time of the threat you are primed and focused to deal with it.
When the threat has passed your body will return to normal again. However, it’s usual to feel tired afterwards or to want to eat to replenish the energy your body has used up. This explains why we quite often manage perfectly well with a stressful situation at the time but afterwards we can feel worn out.
How stress affects the menstrual cycle
The production of oestrogen and progesterone, which control the menstrual cycle, is regulated by other hormones including those produced by the pituitary gland. This gland is very sensitive to stress – stress will affect the release of hormones, which in turn will affect the menstrual cycle.
High stress levels can also inhibit ovulation and in severe cases might cause absent periods (amenorrhea). This mechanism makes complete sense – why would a woman want to get pregnant or have a baby if there are significant stresses in the world, like life-threatening danger or insufficient food?
The difficulties stress CAN cause
This stress reaction is perfect for dealing with one-off threats and when we have time to recover afterwards, such as being chased by a lion. In modern life, stress is rarely as severe as that thankfully.
What we tend to have instead are lower-level threats, like being over-busy at work, no respite from looking after children or elderly parents or both. These induce the stress reaction regularly so that, if the situation continues, we are constantly in low-level stress.
This can be compounded by our lifestyles of not having enough time to exercise or rest, both of which help return the body to balance.
At the moment, at the end of week 2 of coronavirus lockdown here in the UK, many of us have probably had our main stress reaction to the situation – the worry of ourselves or our loved ones becoming unwell or worse, the big change in our lives (e.g. losing work, working from home, children off school).
Now we may well be coming down from our burst of stress hormones and feeling tired. Or if we are still busy, looking after others and working, we might feel a constant, low-level of stress. This may manifest as anxiety, impatience or tiredness.
How to cope better with stress
Here’s my top tips that I’ve found immensely useful over the years.
Be kind to yourself
Acknowledge how you feel and try not to deny or suppress it. Do more of the things make you feel better.
Exercise helps the body to come down from its stress reaction and get back to balance.
If, however, your stress is more long-term, then too much exercise, including yoga, or exercise that is too strenuous, can leave your body feeling more depleted.
There is a fine balance here and only you can find it.
If you practice menstrual cycle awareness, hopefully you are already discovering what different types of exercise, including yoga, are beneficial at different times of your cycle.
It’s the same approach with stress – notice how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally before, during and after you exercise.
Do only what feels beneficial to you by varying your exercise to suit how you are each day.
Normally our culture doesn’t allow much space for this. You may find, now that we’re all cooped up at home, that you do finally have more time. Try not to waste it on social media or watching TV.
What your body, mind and heart need now is a bit of TLC and time to recover.
Rest doesn’t have to mean lying in bed, although if you need more sleep it may look exactly like that. It could be doing all the things you need to do more slowly. Or spending more time on activities that restore you and lift your spirits, like making or creating or gardening.
Relaxation practices are also helpful – if you have a copy of my book Yoga and the menstrual cycle – live in harmony with your natural rhythm, don’t forget you can stream a 10-minute relaxation and a 20-minute yoga nidra, both created to soothe and nurture by connecting you to your menstrual cycle.
Menstrual cycle awareness
Know that high levels of stress, or long-term lower levels of stress may knock your cycle out of it’s rhythm in any way. Cycle length may change, the day you normally ovulate may vary, the length of your period may alter.
Keep note of these changes and follow the tips in this blog. If after a couple of cycles or when your stress reduces, your cycle has not returned to whatever is normal for you, check with your GP that there isn’t an underlying medical condtion causing these changes.
Understand that at some times in your cycle you will be resilient to stress – often this is mid-cycle, around ovulation. Other times, you’ll feel much more susceptible to stress, such as premenstrually and around your period. This does not mean you are on the edge of a nervous breakdown – a degree of this is normal. If you are struggling though, do get in touch with me, or seek other professional help.
Keep a note on what times of your cycle you feel most stressed and when you feel most calm and at ease. Be aware of what helps you avoid stress if that is possible, what helps you reduce it and what helps you recover afterwards. These will be different things at different times in your cycle.
Use this information to be ready for those challenging days so that you know what to do to head off the stress before it happens.
For example, sometimes a long run or a strenuous yoga practice will be exactly what you need to restore balance. Other times, this will make you feel worse, and what you really need is a soak in the bath or a gentle, nurturing yoga session or relaxation practice.
Do let me know how you are getting on with these tips below.