Emily, 25, has had regular periods since the age of 12. “Even when I came off the pill, I was still getting my period once a month,” she says. But in the last eight weeks, since Boris Johnson imposed a nationwide lockdown on 23 March, Emily’s menstrual cycle has gone from being like clockwork to totally sporadic. She is currently 10 days late. “It is really unsettling and confusing.” Emily, who is single, was on her period when the lockdown started. “So at least I know I’m not pregnant – there’s not been any risk of that for a while,” she jokes.
The average menstrual cycle lasts 28 days and it is not unusual for women to experience some irregularity to their periods. The NHS says that, although most women develop a regular cycle post-puberty, with a similar length of time between each, it always can vary by a few days. Sometimes irregularity is due to long-term underlying conditions like endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and for others it will just be an anomaly in the calendar. But for many women like Emily, who had previously been able to accurately estimate the start date to within a 24-hour window, lockdown is providing an unwanted disruption.
In fact, according to a poll of 5,677 women conducted by gynaecologist Dr Anita Mitra, having lockdown-disrupted periods is fairly common. When asked whether or not women had noticed a change in their menstrual cycle or hormonal symptoms during lockdown, more than half (65 per cent) of respondents said yes. The subject has also spawned several Twitter conversations and threads, with hundreds of women left baffled as to why their periods have suddenly become worse, more painful, or less regular. But why is this happening?
Given the difficult circumstances that lockdown has caused for so many of us – financial instability, social isolation, and psychological hardship – the impact on menstrual cycles is not surprising says Dr Leila Frodsham, consultant gynaecologist for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
“The coronavirus pandemic is inevitably resulting in stress and anxiety for much of the population and therefore it is possible that women may notice changes to their menstrual cycle, with stress having the potential to cause hormonal imbalances in the body,” she says.
It is well-documented that women may experience changes to their hormones and cycle as a result of stress: a 2017 study of students at Cambridge University revealed a third of students missing a period during examinations and other times of high anxiety. Common changes women may experience as a result of stress include missing a period or experiencing heavier and/or lighter periods – as women in Dr Mitra’s study reported.
But not everyone experiencing disruptions to their periods is unhappy about it. Emily Barclay, 43, founder of the support network Perimenopause Hub, says her period has become regular in lockdown for the first time since she became perimenopausal. “I think I am the least stressed I’ve been in years,” she says. “Clearly, my body is responding well. I think the lack of rushing around has given me the space to get things done. I’ve also planned more work than I’ve ever been able to before. And I have been sleeping better and more than usual.”
Stories such as Emily’s show just how integral it can be to balance your stress levels in lockdown, particularly if you want to try to rebalance your hormone levels without going on contraception. But what can you do about it if you’re struggling with your periods changing in lockdown?
There are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make to try to reduce stress levels, which will in turn rebalance your hormones and hopefully start to regulate your periods as life either becomes more normal or we become more accustomed to living in lockdown conditions.
Dr Frodsham suggests practising yoga, mindfulness and meditation, in addition to doing regular aerobic exercise. “It is also helpful to track the cycle, as one or two slightly early or late periods is likely no cause for concern,” she adds. “But changes that repeat over a prolonged time, or a complete lack of regularity, should be discussed with a healthcare professional.”
And if your changes to your cycle are causing excessive pain or heavy bleeding, don’t suffer in silence. Dr Frodsham sasy: “Women who are experiencing excessively heavy bleeding, or changes in pain that are preventing them from going about their day-to-day life, should contact their GP without delay who will be help them either on the phone, or in person if required,” says Dr Frodsham.
Additionally, women who are experiencing changes to their menstrual cycles and are currently not on any form of contraception are advised to take a pregnancy test. Dr Diana Mansour, vice president of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare (FSRH) explains that emergency contraception can still be accessed for those who need it.
“Emergency contraception is available in lockdown via a phone or video consultation from your GP, local contraception clinic, or straight from the pharmacy during lockdown,” she says.
It may help to seek ongoing contraception, too, as this could help regulate your menstrual cycle again. “The progestogen-only pill is a good bridging method being offered during lockdown until women are able to access their preferred method such as an implant or intrauterine contraceptive,” adds Dr Mansour.
Nobody knows how long the lockdown will last. If, like so many women, you’re struggling with changes to your body, try to make some short-term lifestyle changes to help alleviate stress levels. If it’s not yoga or exercise, try simply walking outside to make the most of the fresh air when you can, or watch a film that you enjoy. Managing stress is different for everyone.
Even once the lockdown is lifted, it’s worth bearing in mind that the disruptions to our lives caused by the coronavirus outbreak could last indefinitely. If you are concerned about changes to your menstrual cycle, contact your GP or local health provider for support.