It’s been 3, 4, 5 days and… wait, where did your period go? If you’ve already ruled out pregnancy, you may be wondering what could have possibly scared your flow off.
Don’t stress just yet — especially since that might be the very thing that affected your cycle. Lots of people miss periods now and then: Research suggests that 5 to 35 percent of those who menstruate have irregular periods.
There are many reasons why your period might go MIA: lack of nutrients, intensive exercise, and thyroid issues, to name a few. Chronic stress is also one of the most common causes of a late period.
So, if you’ve been feeling extra stressed lately, here’s what might be going on with your flow (or lack thereof).
The menstrual cycle involves a lot more than just blood and cramps — though there’s usually plenty of that, too.
Your period comes first when the uterine lining is shed. After 2 to 7 days of bleeding, the follicular phase kicks in, followed by ovulation around day 14: aka prime baby making time.
When the follicle releases an egg, the luteal phase begins. The whole process takes an average of 25 to 30 days.
When stress levels peak during any of these phases, your brain tells your body to flood itself with hormones that activate your fight-or-flight mode. These hormones halt bodily functions that aren’t essential to escaping threats — including your reproductive system.
Basically, your body’s stress response system still acts like you might be attacked by a lion, tiger, or bear at any moment.
And while it might be work pressure rather than an apex predator that’s getting your heart rate pumping, your body can’t tell the difference. It just thinks, “Hey, we’re under a lot of stress. Let’s put that baby making on hold, amirite?”
This can cause you to stop ovulating temporarily, and delay your period.
Feeling like your period just left you on read? Well, like a bad Tinder date, stress can cause your period to stop showing its face.
Studies show a strong link between amenorrhea (a fancy word for missing 1 or more periods) and chronic stress. A period is considered late when it’s 5 or more days later than usual. When menstrual flow stops for more than 6 weeks, it’s considered a missed period.
Chronic stress is one the most common causes of secondary amenorrhea, which is when your period disappears for 6 months or longer. If you’ve missed a period (or several) and have already ruled out pregnancy, there’s a good chance stress is to blame.
In a 2015 study of 100 female undergrad students, researchers found a strong association between those who reported high stress levels and menstrual irregularities. While measuring precise stress levels can be tricky, the research is clear: Perceived stress and menstrual fluctuations are often related.
Stress can also cause your flow to become shorter, longer, or more painful.
Depression and anxiety can severely impact your day-to-day life, making even activities you once loved feel impossible. These mental health conditions can also affect your cycle in a similar way to stress.
When you’re depressed or anxious, cortisol levels (aka stress hormones) rise in the body. As a result, you get that response that basically tells your reproductive system to stop right there. The ovaries then pause normal activity, and your period might be delayed or stop altogether.
Stress seriously messes with your body. It can cause low energy, headaches, stomach aches, chest pain, and insomnia — and that’s just in the short term. If you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or anxious, your flow is probably being affected, too.
While these things are never one-size-fits all, here are a few tips to get your period back on track:
- Take a breather. Studies show that controlled breathing exercises can help lower blood pressure, boost feelings of well-being, and relieve stress.
- Get some exercise. OK, so you’ve definitely heard this one before. But fitting some exercise in (even if it’s just 30 minutes a few times a week) can boost your mood and relieve stress. (On the flip side: Remember, hardcore exercising can actually halt your flow.)
- Free up your schedule. It’s not always possible to cut down on your responsibilities. But if you can, try to give yourself a break and fit in some self-care.
- Chat with a mental health expert. Talking to a therapist or another mental health professional can help you work through your stress in a way that works best for your unique needs.
Since everyone’s different, expect to use some trial-and-error when fighting stress. You’ve got this.
Sometimes, irregular periods are perfectly normal — especially the first couple years after your first period and during perimenopause (aka pre-menopause). Other times, they might signal something more serious.
If you’ve missed your period for more than a couple months, talk to your doctor. Your doc might evaluate your stress levels, discuss your health history, or perform hormone tests to get to the root of the issue.
You should also always take a pregnancy test (both at home and at the OB/GYN) to rule that possibility out. What if you’ve been taking birth control regularly, you ask? Even if you feel like the odds are slim, it never hurts to play it safe and double-check.