Stress and Trauma Can Wreak Havoc on Your Reproductive Health
Trauma is an experience most people will go through in some form, and no two people will encounter it in exactly the same way. The definition of trauma, "a deeply distressing or disturbing experience," is broad, as the occurrence can encompass different things for different people. The brain has its ways of coping with trauma, be it the sudden death of a loved one, a bad car accident or any other unexpected stressful event. However, according to science, the brain can literally be rewired by trauma.
It should come as no surprise, then, that trauma can have lasting effects on the physical systems of our bodies, in addition to our mental and emotional systems.
"In my clinical and personal experience, the body stores trauma in our reactions, both emotional and physical," said Renee Trewella, R.N.-BSN. "The severity of the reaction is dependent on the severity of the trauma."
The reproductive system is no exception—when someone experiences trauma, the reproductive system reacts. Stress, even the normal stress of everyday life, is a major contributor to irregular menstrual cycles. Let's take a look at the biology behind why.
How stress affects your cycle
Amenorrhea can be simply defined as the absence of your period. If you haven't started your period by the age of 15, you are considered to have primary amenorrhea. Secondary amenorrhea is the absence of three or more periods in a row in someone who has already started menstruating. There are a plethora of potential causes for secondary amenorrhea, including stress, because of the way it affects certain parts of the brain.
"Long-term effects of stress and trauma are vast and many," Trewella said. "Many times, our menstrual cycles are influenced by internal and external stressors."
Stress, even the normal stress of everyday life, is a major contributor to irregular menstrual cycles.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stress affects the function of the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the area of the brain that regulates your hormones, and, thus, your menstrual cycle. When this area of the brain is negatively affected, ovulation and menstruation can stop.
Trewella noted that extreme bodily stress, such as sexual violence, can result in delayed ovulation.
The stressors present in everyday life can be enough to dysregulate your menstrual cycle, so it makes sense that traumatic events can have the same effect—especially since the heightened stress caused by trauma can be long-lasting.
Addressing the causes
Irregular menstrual cycles can be distressing in and of themselves for a multitude of reasons. Knowing when to expect your period each month can be a challenge, as can getting pregnant if your cycles are irregular or missing.
If you suspect that your menstrual cycle is being affected by stress, it's of utmost importance to research appropriate stress management techniques. Trewella highly recommends addressing current stressors and past trauma in therapy, as trauma can affect us for longer than we think and in ways we don't realize.
"In my clinical experience, it's helpful to evaluate any past history of trauma before embarking on any type of assessment or procedures," Trewella said.
Though trauma and the resulting stress are common culprits of irregular menstrual cycles, they aren't the only culprits. Other physical health issues can negatively impact your cycle. Such conditions include polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—which can also be exacerbated by stress, low body weight and problems with the reproductive organs themselves. Speaking to a reproductive healthcare professional is a great place to start when identifying the root cause of your irregular cycles.
"Anytime cycles do not occur within a given range of days, you should speak to your healthcare professional," Trewella said. "I would personally recommend a healthcare provider that has a more holistic, whole-body approach to reproductive health."
Being in tune with your body's normal rhythms is so important, as irregular menstrual cycles can indicate other underlying health issues. A plethora of conditions can cause physical stress on your body that then impacts your menstrual health.
Carri A. Brown, a full-time caretaker of a family member with cancer, said her family member received a cancer diagnosis after she decided to seek medical treatment for her unusually heavy periods.
"She decided she needed to do something about her heavy periods, which wiped her out each time her cycle began," Brown said. "Because she listened to her body, they eventually found a type of blood cancer."
Brown agreed that it's important to find a medical professional that will listen to all of your concerns, take all your stressors into account and help you make a comprehensive treatment plan.
"It's so important to advocate for yourself," Brown said. "You know your body best. Don't allow anyone to make you believe 'it's all in your head.'"
Your body knows best
The one benefit to an irregular menstrual cycle is that it can signal when something isn't quite right. Whether it's a trauma response or the result of an underlying health issue, uncovering the root cause of menstrual cycle irregularity is of paramount importance to your reproductive and overall health.
"The systems in our bodies are all connected to each other in some way," Brown said. "Our bodies remind us daily of our own reality."