How stressed have you been lately? Whether you are coping with relationship conflict, feeling overwhelmed at work, dealing with physical issues like an illness, or experiencing mental strain, stress can take a toll on your body.
Sometimes, it’s obvious that you are feeling stressed, but other times it can sneak up on you. Observing your body for signs of stress is important because it give you insight into the effects stress is having on your body and mind so that you can take steps to minimize its impact. What happens if you don’t pay attention?
What Happens When You’re Feeling Stressed
When you are under stress, your body goes into survival mode. You’re just trying to make it through the week without everything falling apart. It’s like you don’t even have time to stop and think about what’s going on and how it’s affecting you. It is important to pay attention to stress levels because long-term stress can cause depression, deplete your immune system, and impact your fertility, among other effects.
During these times of stress, your body tries to clue you into the fact that you are experiencing stress. Think of it as your body sending out a distress signal saying, “Hey, something isn’t right here and we need to fix it!” Some warning signs of stress can be difficulty sleeping, feeling drained, and losing your appetite. Another sign of stress that might not immediately come to mind are the changes that happen to your menstrual cycle. That’s right, knowing the signs of your typical menstrual cycle and being mindful of any changes can help you keep tabs on your how your body is being affected by stress.
This is where charting with a Fertility Awareness-Based Method (FABMs) can be incredibly helpful. Why? Because FABMs provide you with the tools to observe any changes in your menstrual cycle that could be a result of stress.
“Your menstrual cycle can be called the fifth vital sign of health because your hormonally-driven reproductive system is one of the most sensitive of your body’s systems,” says Gabrielle Jastrebski, the Global Program Manager and Educator with The Femm Foundation. She explains:
“The body functions as an integrated whole; when one body system is impacted, other body systems are also affected. Stress can manifest in your cycle by delaying ovulation. For women who are charting their cycles and aware of their biomarkers of ovulation, they will see this in action, for women who don’t have this level of awareness, they may simply notice this as a late period. The cycle is an important vital sign because continuous irregular cycles can indicate underlying hormonal health issues and impact your overall health and future fertility.”
When taking hormonal birth control, your ability use your cycle as a fifth sign of health is impeded. Because you aren’t able to observe your cycle the way you can when charting with a Fertility Awareness-Based Method, it’s more difficult to recognize the hormone changes happening in your body due to stress. This, in turn, makes it difficult to know your body is being affected by stress, and it is more difficult to know when you need to take preventive action.
Charting your cycle with a FABM, however, enables you to recognize those stress-related changes in your cycle. Since your cycle is the fifth sign of health, it acts almost as a temperature for how your body is handling and affected by the stressors in your life. When your body undergoes stress, it affects specific hormones which, in turn, affect your cycle in several ways. As Lindsay Schlegel points out in this article for Natural Womanhood, stress can affect your cycle with delayed ovulation, no ovulation, longer cycles, a shorter luteal phase, or missed periods. Ms. Jastrebski further explains some of the ways your body can attempt to cope with stress: if your cycle is typically 26 days long, but this month it is 21 days long, that could be a sign of stress—especially if you can look back over the past month and identify any significant stressors you’ve experienced.
How to prevent stress from impacting your cycle and fertility
So how do you prevent stress from affecting you mentally and physically? A great place to start is with self-care. Think of self-care as a way to build up you mental and physical strength to handle both everyday stressors and those out-of-the-ordinary stressors that come your way so that they don’t impact your body and mind as severely. Examples of everyday stressors include having lots going on at work, having an irritating commute, and juggling family responsibilities; meanwhile, out-of-the-ordinary stressors include the death of a family member or close friend, relationship difficulties, or a health issue, just to name a few. Think of self-care as similar to endurance training that helps you cope with issues like these without your mental and physical health being affected.
Some basic examples of self-care include getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night; eating regular, healthy meals; getting in some regular exercise; and keeping in touch with friends. Other self-care basics include regularly practicing calming and relaxation exercises like journaling, making gratitude lists, using positive self-talk, and deep breathing. Learning to set boundaries is also incredibly helpful for managing stress. Whatever self-care practices you choose to do, make sure it is specifically addressing whatever the stressor is in your life. For example, if you are having trouble falling asleep because you can’t stop worrying about work, try to implement a calming routine before bed. Or, if you feel overwhelmed with work or being at home with your kids, try to get out for as little as an hour just to be by yourself and de-stress. This is important especially if you are trying to conceive or even avoid pregnancy. A more predictable and regular cycle will help you reach your family-planning goals.
While the exact methods of effective self-care may vary from person to person, the value that charting can bring in identifying stress-induced hormone issues is true for every woman. Thanks to modern, evidence-based Fertility Awareness-Based Methods of charting, women can be empowered to observe the effects of stress on hormonal health down to a science—and implement her unique self-care plan to manage her health, both mind and body.