Coronavirus PMS (or pandemic PMS) is a reminder of how stress impacts health

Next month it’s very likely I’ll be back hoarding tissues and cake icing. But at least I’ll have a better idea of what’s happening to my body.
Image: A woman holds a tampon.
It was a relief to learn that not only was I not alone in this hormonal COVID-exacerbated mess.Megan Madden / Refinery29 for Getty Images
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By Allison Hope

I was on my fifth spoonful of cake icing and my second box of tissues as I cried over the personal essay of someone who lost a loved one to COVID-19 when I realized I might need to hit the pause button.

Sure enough, not three days later, I got my period. I actually felt better after identifying why I felt so much worse than usual, certainly more so than during my normal hormonal cycle. Pandemic PMS is real.

The lockdowns and uncertainty are making many different aspects of our life worse as we struggle to navigate our physical and mental health in a very different reality.

Yes, sadness and anxiety and binge eating are all perfectly normal responses to this pandemic. Coronavirus cases are spiking across the South and West, as states that thought they were safe to reopen have discovered the opposite is true. The lockdowns and uncertainty are making many different aspects of our life worse as we struggle to navigate our physical and mental health in a very different reality.

PMS, or premenstrual syndrome, affects the physical and emotional health of menstruating people just before their period. PMS is influenced by stress hormones and insulin, including your estrogen and progesterone. When anxiety levels rise, your body releases more of those stress hormones, cortisol and epinephrine, which leads to increased appetite and sugar cravings. Research suggests roughly 90 percent of women experience some PMS symptoms.

But like so many health challenges faced primarily by women, PMS is more likely to be the butt of a joke than a topic of serious medical discussion. This is frustrating for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it serves to minimize female pain. But just because PMS is a patriarchal punchline doesn’t mean it isn’t real — or getting worse as Americans continue to battle this pandemic.

“The constant barrage of fear about this virus and the uncertainty of a global pandemic is, in itself, enough to cause an increase in stress hormones,” said Dr. Christiane Northrup, a board-certified OB/GYN physician and women’s health expert. Add to the mix increased junk food cravings, social isolation, and financial or family insecurity, and “it is no wonder that women are suffering from increased PMS,” Northrup said.

Anecdotally, I have certainly felt this way. I reached out to my social media networks and quickly found I was not alone.

“I have birth control in my arm, Nexplanon, and I got my period when I got laid off when this started ramping up,” said 37-year-old Darcy Lee. Lee hadn’t gotten her period since October because of the birth control. “It’s definitely stress. And fear,” she said.

Sara Schafer, 35, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said her PMS symptoms this spring were so bad that she was convinced she had COVID-19. “I could barely get out of bed,” she said, adding that she felt like her mental strain was manifesting itself in newly unpleasant physical ways.

“My emotions are out of control and I am feeling psychotic,” said Jodi-Marie Izzo-Torres. “But everything is out of whack, so why not this, too?”

It was a relief to learn that not only was I not alone in this hormonal COVID-exacerbated mess, but science had my back.

Research shows that when women report stress can also be a factor in the severity of their PMS symptoms. According to the National Institutes of Health, “women who report feeling stressed early in their monthly cycle were more likely than those who were less stressed to report more pronounced symptoms before and during menstruation.” That PMS stress can manifest itself as heightened emotional swings, psychological distress and physical pain.

The good (and perhaps bad) news is that there are ways to try to minimize this distress, and the strategies may also help with other pandemic-related problems.

“Practicing healthy stress management strategies could be key to lowering symptoms,” said Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author. But such advice is easier offered than followed. “Clearly, that is difficult for many women right now who are struggling during the pandemic,” Morin said.

As many others have already pointed out, it would be great if we could all treat our bodies a little bit kinder, paying more attention to our stress and eating habits.

As many others have already pointed out, it would be great if we could all treat our bodies a little bit kinder, paying more attention to our stress and eating habits.

Katie Bressack, a Los Angeles-based holistic nutritionist and women’s health coach, said that being more purposeful about our diet is also potentially helpful. “Focus on healthy fats to help your body feel nourished and satisfied — salmon, olive oil, avocado — they are really good for brain function, so the more you eat, the more you can think clearly,” Bressack said.

Bressack suggests consuming more protein in the form of beans, nuts, legumes, some lean meat, as well as fruits and vegetables, and good sources of fiber. Eating within the first hour of waking up helps reset your blood sugar levels, and keep the stress hormones in check. Basic care like drinking water, getting solid sleep, staying off your phone right before bed, limiting when you consume news about the virus, and engaging in self-care activities — whatever that means to you — can also help.

“When you’re stressed you forget the basics, especially in this type of pandemic environment because they’re just trying to get through the day,” said Bressack. “We’re all in that same space. Focus on what you’re eating and putting in your body."

The good news? Chocolate, particularly 75 percent cacao or higher, can actually be good for your body. So, if you’re craving sugar, that’s a good option.

Next month it’s likely I’ll be back hoarding tissues and cake icing. But I’ll have a better idea about what’s happening to my body — and at least can take some comfort in knowing that I am not alone.