Why your menstrual cycle is messed up during the pandemic, and how to alleviate your symptoms, according to experts

  • People are reporting changes in their menstrual cycles, from increased PMS pain and emotions to spotting and unpredictable cycles, since the coronavirus pandemic began.
  • The anecdotes aren’t surprising to OB-GYNs, who point to stress and changes in routine as disruptors of the menstrual cycle.
  • But an irregular cycle can have negative health consequences, especially if it persists, so it’s important to find coping mechanisms for alleviating symptoms and to talk to a healthcare provider.
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My first emotional meltdown of the coronavirus pandemic left me crumpled and wailing on the TV room floor and punching pillows so furiously I woke up the next day sore.

My second took its form in frustration-fuelled laps around a track so speedy that the fitness tracking app Strava noted it a personal best.

The third arrived as a deep pit in my stomach and a dark cloud over my head as if I’d just committed a terrible crime or found out a loved one died.

Each instance, I’ve retroactively plotted on a calendar, occurred on a Sunday. Each instance was exactly one month apart. And, each instance was followed by my period arriving – and myself coming back.

That these fits of emotion can be explained by PMS may come as a surprise to no one but me. But as someone who’s been blessed not to experience the syndrome beyond the occasional dull and fleeting cramp in 16-some years of menstruating, I’m stunned by the power of the symptoms and preciseness of their arrival.

The past three months have delivered more than enough to be devastated, frustrated, and gloomy about. It was OK, and normal, I told myself, to feel those feelings and let them run their course – and certainly, it is.

But something else is going on, OB-GYNs and fellow menstruators told me: The pandemic has changed our cycles in remarkable ways, from spotting and late periods to deeper pain and amplified emotions.

“None of those complaints surprise me,” Dr. Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in Westchester County, told me.

Stress and changes in sleep, eating, and exercise patterns may all be to blame, but experts say symptoms shouldn’t be ignored and that there are ways to cope.

Period changes range from late starts to improved symptoms

Megan Lane, a 30-year-old writer in New York State, told me that since stay-at-home orders were issued, her premenstrual discomfort has taken a turn for the worse.

“Besides the usual bloating and cramping, I’m also experiencing hot and cold flashes, joint pain, heightened anxiety, and insomnia,” she said. It got so bad she bought a $US72 eight-pack of CBD-infused vaginal suppositories, which she said minimized her pain about 60%.

Another person responded to an informal inquiry I posted in a Facebook group, saying they have experienced spotting since quarantines began. Previously, they hadn’t been getting a period at all on birth-control pills.

Someone else, who’s also been on birth control for years, said her period has been late almost every month since the pandemic hit. “I panicked that first month because I really don’t want any more kids!” she commented.

One woman who has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – a hormonal disorder that can cause irregular periods, abnormal amounts of facial and body hair, and infertility – said her normally unpredictable cycle has surprisingly regulated.

“Normally stress can trigger cycle changes, so I guess mine went the other way for a change!” she wrote.

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And others still reported changes due to clearer, though still concerning, reasons: Shutdowns forced them to continue using birth control implants that otherwise would have been removed, or drug shortages resulted in their reception of a birth-control pill made with a different formula.

Chelsea, a writer in Florida, is in the latter camp. After taking a round of the replacement pills, “I started to have really bad menstrual cramps and back pain the likes of which I hadn’t experienced in more than a decade,” she said.

Like me, the experience has given her empathy for people who’ve been dealing with seriously disruptive PMS symptoms every month for years, if not decade. “I couldn’t be at my office job like this, in pain all day long,” she thought while taking a staycation. “How do people remain productive while dealing with this on a regular basis?”

Experts say for some, the changes may be due to stress and changed habits

Stress can affect your period because it disrupts how your brain controls the hormones that keep it regular, and the enormity of the stress caused by the pandemic and police brutality is demonstrating just how much.

“When we are under stress … there is increased activity along the axis between the brain and adrenal glands to generate stress hormones such as cortisol that help us respond to a threat,” Dr. Sarika Arora wrote for Women’s Health Network.

That, in turn, messes with the balance between hormones including estrogen and progesterone, prompting PMS symptoms, an altered cycle, or both.

Even women like me using birth-control methods like the pill or a hormonal IUD, which artificially produce some of those hormones, can find their cycles altered by stress, Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB-GYN in Dallas, told me.

“There’s this kind of tug of war between your body’s normal response and what the contraceptive is providing in the form of hormones,” Shepherd said. “So when you go through a stressful timeframe, that can alter your normal functioning hormones and it can cause a shift in how your body responds to the contraception that you’re on.”

The pandemic has also considerably altered many our sleeping, eating, and exercise patterns, all of which can affect your flow and the preceding or accompanying symptoms.

“If you’re now having salty snacks and eating at irregular times, or maybe upping caffeine and not sleeping well, this is all going to have an influence on PMS and menstrual symptoms,” Dweck said.

It’s also possible some of us are now experiencing new or different symptoms in the absence of activities that helped mask or alleviate them in the past. I used to swim at least three times a week, for example, and going more than three months without that sanity-saving exercise may be turning up emotions I typically stroked away.

Menstrual irregularities can have long-term consequences

No matter why the pandemic is corresponding with period changes, menstrual abnormalities aren’t just annoying – they can come with real consequences, especially if they persist.

“Those emotions can trigger certain conditions or disease states of women to get considerably worse,” Shepherd said.

Long-term irregularities can lead to unhealthy weight changes, weak bones, fertility issues, and even an increased risk for certain cancers.

It’s also important to take note when your body speaks up in the form of new cramps, late periods, or raging emotions – rather than merely brushing them off as stress – since they could signal a medical condition that deserves treatment.

For instance, you could have PCOS, hyper- or hypothyroidism, or uterine polyps or fibroids.

“Even outside of COVID, many times when I see women, whatever their condition or disease state is, they think that they might be the only one who’s going through that,” Shepherd said. “So it’s still important to convey that message that they’re not alone in their journey.”

She recommends taking advantage of telehealth options if you can’t or don’t feel comfortable visiting a provider in person.

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Meantime, to manage symptoms, Shepherd is a big fan of mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga, which can rescue the brain from its cortisol-spewing fight-or-flight response and help regulate your hormones.

Getting into the habit of using those tools now can help you in the post-pandemic world, too.

While I’ll admit I haven’t pursued much (if any) mindfulness over the past few months, being aware that monthly breakdowns are likely hormone-related and surely temporary gives me peace of mind.

It also gives me tools to prepare for the next one, due July 5: Namely, a warning to my partner that a storm’s brewing, and a well-timed plan to spend the week before and after at my family’s ocean-side home during which we both pray I’ll swim the PMS away.