What is at the core of modern stress and how it impacts our menstrual health?
Struggling with menstrual imbalances such as endometriosis and infertility causes lots of stress in our lives, for sure!
The physical and emotional pain can be so difficult that some days, women who suffer from these conditions feel like dying. Even though any menstrual imbalances won’t kill you, it can sure make you feel like it’s so painfully hard to live a full life. Add all the other symptoms which comes with menstrual imbalances and the often associated struggle with infertility and our stress levels will just go off the scale!
But could it be the reverse?
When I ask women to share with me their stories, they often remember that the menstrual pain and emotional reactions began with a trauma, a big transition, a loss, a time when there was a lot of stress and/or a feeling of loneliness and lack of support.
On top of this, let’s not forget that we’re only the second or third generation of women to be juggling family life, home and full-time work (often outside the home), all at the same time! We have not had many great female role models to lead the way. Most of us have grown up with mothers who were pioneers when it came to stepping out of the home and into the workforce, or stepping out of their marriages and into a life as a single mother. These super moms impressed upon us that we could do it all, which was amazing. But they were also super frickin’ stressed out!! Am I right? And to boot, they were often terrible at reaching out and asking for help.
I see a common thread in a lot of the women who come to me for help with their menstrual health. They are Fire Women -high achievers and they like to be in control. They are always there for friends and family, involved in community, have high pressure jobs or are entrepreneurs. And yes, they want to be mothers too, mothers who are also great, perfect, and in control!
It is no real surprise that wanting to be in control, be perfect, achieve greatness, and be a constant support to others is impossible. Yet we try, and then… Hello stress! Stress is at the core of our menstrual imbalances, especially in endometriosis which is an inflammatory condition. The body is continually fired up which, for one, has dire consequences to our immune system, making it hard for us to heal the inflammation.
Now stress can be caused in so many ways. A big stressor is of course the environmental toxins that are in the air, water, bad foods, chemicals that leach out of all the plastics we use, which increase our estrogen levels, causing endometriosis to grow and shed. Then think about the stress your body felt if you’ve ever endured unhealthy relationships or jobs!
But it doesn’t stop there. Throw-in all the inner stresses that come from our thoughts, beliefs and the words we speak to ourselves. All the systems in our body are so heavily impacted by our emotions and this is the kind of stress which I believe causes the most internal pain for us.
Let’s go a bit deeper into the beliefs behind our pain.
I obviously can’t say that there is for sure a clear pattern of beliefs in women struggling with menstrual imbalances, but tell me if some of these sound familiar to you?
• I carry the whole world on my shoulders
• I often feel alone and a sense of loss, which I can’t really explain, and a deep need to belong, feel loved and accepted, especially the days up to and during my menstruation.
• I long for strong intimate connections. Yet I find it hard to truly trust the world enough to speak up about my most inner feelings and dreams.
• I’m full of great ideas, but I can’t find the time to accomplish any of them.
• I feel like I have to be somewhere else all the time, constantly moving away from something, or towards something, so how can I relax and just let go.
• I feel such a lack of focus and I’m totally overwhelmed most of the time.
• I want to achieve so much and reach my potential, so I have to push through the pain to keep going.
• I am afraid to expose my vulnerability and concerned about not being good enough.
• I don’t know how to take enough time to care for myself and take space for myself.
• I don’t know how to balance what I long to do for myself and what I feel I have to do for others.
Healing begins when we start to really care for ourselves and to find the courage to speak up and put ourselves first. And we DO inherently know what we really need. It’s uncanny. When I ask women what helps them with menstrual pain, PMS, fatigue and even fertility, they most often have the answer even before they start working with me. I frequently hear:
• slowing down and resting just before and 2-3 days into our period
• meditation and self-reflection
• listening to my body, mind and heart
• doing gentle movements like Yoga
• having some body work done like a massage
Essentially, we know that to heal we really need to allow ourselves to care for ourselves and to sooth our bodies and emotions by feeling loved and cared for!
Alongside these healing steps mentioned above, water is another thing which most women find helpful; drinking enough of it, being in it, doing some gentle swimming, taking baths, and of course, using our beloved hot water bottle. In Yoga, we believe that water “cools the fire” and helps with the inflammation that often is the cause of our painful cramps. Water soothes our nervous system, calms the inflammation, helps us detox, and helps with creating better flow during menstruation.
Finally, there can be great catharsis and healing in sharing and voicing our fears and needs about our monthly pain or our fertility struggles, along side all the thoughts, feelings, and dreams we have -every day, every week and every month. After I found the courage to ask for support, I realized that I was never alone, and I’ve been in such wonderful company since!
Can we make a deal with ourselves to slow down and begin to see the action in the non-action?
Basically while we are running through our days, weeks and months trying to get everything done in our lives in a constant state of mild to severe stress, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is firing up our fight-or-flight response. This response is meant to keep us safe in an acute state of stress like facing a lion on the Savanna. This creates a domino effect in which vital parts are shut down internally in our body. First our stress hormones get elevated, our heart rate goes up, muscle tension increases, which is what causes that chronic pain in our body, that some of us know so intimately. Then brain activity begins to increase, and we get agitated because chronic stress brings about poor brain function; it gets foggy and we find it very hard to focus and remember. Blood flow is decreased from vital organs and processes, and is directed rather into arms and legs to get ready to fight or run. This includes digestion, elimination, repair functions and more specifically the uterine organs and our fertility. Prolonged stress truly has a direct impact on the menstrual cycle, ovulation, and our ability to conceive.
The antidote is deep relaxation which activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
The body will always try and achieve balance. If given the chance, the body wants to create rest. While the SNS is about stimulation to help us be safe in the outside world, the PNS has a relaxing effect on the body and the mind which helps us be healthy and fully functioning internally in our body, heart and mind. When we experience chronic stress, the SNS doesn’t turn off and it begins to dominate the PNS. Then a conscious effort is required to activate our relaxation response. That’s when you need to start loving and caring for yourself, and this is where Yoga comes in handy!!
You might have heard of Restorative Yoga.
This is a form of Yoga where we stay relaxed in a pose for a longer time supported by props. This is the best way to help PNS because in Restorative Yoga, we stay in the pose ideally up to 20 minutes, and we’re fully supported, so we feel safe. Our entire system quiets, allowing the hormone balance to improve, the heart rate to go down and muscular tension to decrease. Brain waves slow down and the mind gets a chance to calm. Circulation to organs, digestion and repair processes improve and the function of our uterine organs and fertility increases. Chronic pain begins to decrease, and the bodies natural healing mechanisms can begin to function optimally.
When experiencing a lot of pain, we often disconnect from our bodies. Yoga helps us to reconnect, to get back into our bodies, to find a rhythm and a caring, to gain intimacy with ourselves again.
Deep relaxation also helps us be with what is, rather than fight it, deny it or blame others. We are held in support, love and acceptance. We are looking to create space in Restorative Yoga. Rather than a deep stretch, we’re simply allowing a space for ourselves where we’re not striving for anything!
The people who don’t want to rest are the one’s who need it the most.
We’re overworked; we simply do too much because we’ve come to believe that “the meaning in life” is doing. Underneath all this effort is very often the great fear and frustration which can create the inflammation, pain, irritation and sadness which we feel in connection to our menstruation. We have to find time to rest and relax our nervous system and long supported relaxations offer that healing.
The rule is: never use more than 70% of your energy if you want to be healthy.
What would that look like and feel like to you in your life if you were to invite in this guideline?
Yoga is about being real and about looking at our beliefs and attitudes. We are successful in so many areas in our lives because we are high achievers and very driven. We strive for excellence and are used to working hard and being rewarded accordingly. Because of this, we often take that paradigm and apply it to our healing process. Our sympathetic nervous systems is constantly firing, and back to the image of the Savanna, it’s as if we are in attack mode to change our situation. What needs to truly happen is a letting go and trust that if we care for ourselves and begin to listen to our bodies, if we learn to relax deeply, then we create the best possible condition in our bodies for healing to naturally happen.
“In Yoga, we always move toward finding the path of least resistance. As long as we feel resistance, we cannot relax. Not feeling safe is often at the base of stress, need for control, anger and sadness.”
When we do Yoga and begin to relax, we get closer to our sensations again. We expand, and we can be present with how we feel on all levels. This experience teaches us over time to feel safe, which helps us to let go of our need for control. When we feel safe, supported and connected to ourselves, we don’t trigger the usual anger and sadness reactions. Once our bodies and emotions are in balance, the body’s own healing system will naturally kick in and do its work.
So for us as women, healing starts here by simply learning to trust the action in the inaction of allowing time in our lives to focus only on ourselves for a moment and relax.
“May this practice support us. May we be happy. May we be healthy, and may we be free”
– Ricky Russell Bell Adaptive Yoga, Piedmont Yoga, CA
Take good care of yourself – Always! x
p.s.: Check out my free mini Yoga therapy classes for menstrual health and fertility on my website. Here you’ll find support in doing your own Restorative Yoga at home.