PMS and Anxiety: driven by evolution

Written by Body

Feeling down and not yourself, tearful, worried, uneasy… Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) wreaks havoc on many women during their monthly cycle. Of the many symptoms that makes PMS so nasty, anxiety and depression are potentially the most debilitating. 

Many years ago our bodies developed systems to keep us from harm. Propagation of the species was of utmost importance to our early ancestors and protection of an ovulating woman was essential.  Unfortunately, these antiquated processes don’t work well in modern society. In order to understand how we are influenced by this ancestral programming, we have to first take a look at the monthly cycle.

Understanding the Cycle

Each cycle one ovary develops a follicle that will release an egg. When fully developed, the follicle begins to secrete the hormone estradiol. In the brain, the hypothalamus responds to estradiol by signalling the secretion of luteinizing hormone (LH). Lutenizing hormone secretion begins the next phase: ovulation.

Ovulation occurs when the developed follicle releases an egg. The egg travels down the fallopian tube towards the uterus. From this point the egg has 24 hours to be fertilized.

During the next phase – luteal phase – the follicle transforms into a “corpus lutem” and begins to pump out the hormone progesterone. Progesterone tells the body to create a nutritive environment for the egg in case of fertilization. If the egg is not fertilized, the corpus lutem will die off and progesterone production stops. This decrease in progesterone triggers the last phase of the menstrual cycle, menstruation.

Effect of Menstruation on Cognition

Progesterone and estradiol pass the blood-brain barrier, meaning they can directly influence the functioning of the brain. There are receptors for both hormones in the areas of the brain that oversee cognitive function and emotional processing. The amygdala has the highest concentration of progesterone receptors. This is the part of the brain responsible for processing fear reactions and emotional memories.

Progesterone levels are highest during the luteal phase when the egg is patiently awaiting fertilization. During this phase, women are quicker to respond to sad or angry faces and dangerous stimuli such snakes. For our ancestors, this response would have been extremely beneficial. Heightening the potential mother’s perception of harm ensures she protects herself and baby.

Moreover, the reactivity of the stress hormone cortisol is elevated during the luteal phase. Higher reactivity means that our “fight or flight” response is activated quicker and with more intensity than during any other part of the cycle. What we call the fight or flight response is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Acceleration of heart and lung function, dilation of eyes to enhance sight, increased blood flow to muscles and increased muscle tension to enhance strength are characteristic of this response.

Again, this makes evolutionary sense so that a potential mother can escape from a dangerous situation. High levels of progesterone have already allowed her to identify fearful stimuli quicker. Now, with an increased cortisol reactivity, the the fight or flight response activates quickly so she can respond. Together, these reactions allow for the protection of the mother and child.

Fight or Flight in Modern Society

While these reactions may have served the best interests of our early ancestors, they don’t work well in modern society. The fight or flight response is misused when an identified “threat” causes an increase in cortisol production; i.e. when you encounter a stressful situation. The modern day counterpart of the “fight or flight” mechanism is stress and anxiety.

During the day-to-day, we can deal with this overzealous response and can even utilize it to increase our productiveness: huge project at work has you feeling stressed, finish it and remove the stressor. However, problems occur when the reaction is exacerbated, as in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. This manifests as the mental symptoms associated with PMS.

Mindfulness for Premenstrual Anxiety

There is a great deal of research on mindfulness training and it’s effect on individuals suffering from mental illnesses, including chronic depression and anxiety. Recently, a study by Dr. Karen Bluth from the University of North Carolina found that mindfulness training provides a feasible and well-tolerated behavioural intervention for women suffering from menstrually related mood disorders.

An excellent self-study book was written through the collaboration of psychologists and research scientists to provide a mindfulness course to those who need it. The Mindfulway Workbook can be purchased on Amazon and completed as a self-study or can be conducted in an 8-week classroom setting by a qualified practitioner.

In Conclusion

The likelihood is that you will experience PMS from time to time. With the knowledge of what causes PMS it will be easier to understand what your body is trying to accomplish. No matter how you feel, remember: your body does have good intentions.

Mindfulness techniques help you to identify anxious thought processes and help stop them before they begin. Although your hormones may want you to react one way, mindfulness helps you acknowledge the feeling and move past it. Though combining mindfulness training with the knowledge of why PMS and premenstrual anxiety occurs, you can outsmart your own evolutionary processes.

Last modified: September 13, 2017