In a new study, researchers examined whether the effects of a stressful event are linked to different stages of the menstrual cycle. Hormone levels may provide key to understanding psychological disorders in women. Scientists wanted to find a monthly window of opportunity that could potentially be targeted in efforts to prevent common mental health problems developing in women.
Hormonal changes at puberty, menopause, during the menstrual cycle, or after childbirth can be the trigger that brings on mental illness in some women predisposed genetically. Women at a particular stage in their monthly menstrual cycle may be more vulnerable to some of the psychological side-effects associated with stressful experiences, according to a study from the University College London (UCL).
The study examined how changes in hormone levels at different times of the month may influence psychological disorders in women. Results of the research suggest a monthly window of opportunity that could potentially be targeted in efforts to prevent common mental health problems developing in women. The research is the first to show a potential link between psychological vulnerability and the timing of a biological cycle, in this case ovulation.
A common symptom of mood and anxiety problems is the tendency to experience repetitive and unwanted thoughts
These ‘intrusive thoughts’ often occur in the days and weeks after a stressful experience. That’s why meditation that focuses on the present and distracts the mind by focusing on a particular phrase or breathing rate can help distract the mind from wandering to unwanted memories. Sometimes ambient music helps or meditation followed by specific dance or exercise slow movements.
The participants were 41 women aged between 18 and 35 who had regular menstrual cycles and were not using the pill as a form of contraception. Each woman watched a 14-minute stressful film containing death or injury and provided a saliva sample so that hormone levels could be assessed. They were then asked to record instances of unwanted thoughts about the video over the following days.
“We found that women in the ‘early luteal’ phase, which falls roughly 16 to 20 days after the start of their period, had more than three times as many intrusive thoughts as those who watched the video in other phases of their menstrual cycle,” explains author Dr Sunjeev Kamboj, Lecturer in UCL’s Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, according to the May 24, 2013 news release, Hormone levels may provide key to understanding psychological disorders in women. “This indicates that there is actually a fairly narrow window within the menstrual cycle when women may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing distressing symptoms after a stressful event.”
The findings could have important implications for mental health problems and their treatment in women who have suffered trauma
“Asking women who have experienced a traumatic event about the time since their last period might help identify those at greatest risk of developing recurring symptoms similar to those seen in psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” explained Dr Kamboj in the news release. “This work might have identified a useful line of enquiry for doctors, helping them to identify potentially vulnerable women who could be offered preventative therapies,” continued Dr Kamboj.
“However, this is only a first step. Although we found large effects in healthy women after they experienced a relatively mild stressful event, we now need to see if the same pattern is found in women who have experienced a real traumatic event. We also need further research to investigate how using the contraceptive pill affects this whole process.”
For further information, see the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory – Elsevier. Also, you may be interested in these other two studies, “Learning under stress impairs memory formation Lars Schwabe | Oliver T. Wolf,” and “The role of REM sleep in the processing of emotional memories: Evidence from behavior and event-related potentials,” S. Groch | I. Wilhelm.