What do we consider stress?
Stress can be anything that your body perceives as a threat. This could be mental or emotional stress like planning a wedding, shopping for Christmas gifts for 28 relatives, lesson-planning for the third quarter, coordinating visits with the in-laws, or the mess that travel can be. Stress can also be physical: illness, a vigorous exercise routine, a flare-up of a chronic condition, or significantly reducing your calorie intake.
What does stress do to your cycle?
If stress is indicating to your body that it's not a great time for a baby, your reproductive system adjusts to protect you from the added work of gestation. This means the most common response to stress is a delay in ovulation: if you don't ovulate, you can't get pregnant. Seems logical if the hypothalamus and ovaries were capable of rational thought.
In practical terms, this looks like longer cycles, not detecting peak at the expected time, or you may see many more days of "high" fertility than usual. For couples trying to avoid pregnancy, this means a longer fertile window than normal, and likely increased abstinence. In breastfeeding women, they may see the same delay in ovulation, or conversely, they might see an increase in fertile symptoms, especially if their ability to breastfeed on their normal schedule is reduced.
So you're stressed: what can you do about it?
Just kidding. That advice has helped no one ever.
In reality, take small steps to reduce and manage stress within your level of control.
Set aside time for silence and prayer every day.
Get outside whenever you can. We know in Michigan that those precious rays of sunlight can be few and far between, so especially make an effort to get out there if you see Mr. Sun!
Eliminate screen time before bed. Delete social media from your phone if you have to.
Focus on the parts of the holidays that bring you and your family joy, and don’t feel guilty if that means changing past traditions or letting a few things go. The Incarnation doesn't hinge on whether you bake 5 dozens cookies for the 2nd grade Christmas party or not.
Build a gentle and routine exercise plan. In my own life, I have found committing to a small change and increasing over time is much more effective than committing to a drastic change. Start small: 15 minutes twice a week of light to moderate exercise, and build from there!
If you have a chronic health issue, check in with your doctor regularly, and follow his or her recommendations to manage your health. If you notice a change, don’t wait to visit your provider!
If you are breastfeeding, focus on the needs of your body and your baby. Make a point to sit down, undistracted, to feed your baby. Drink plenty of water, and avoid drastic reduction in your food intake.
Including fat in your diet is important, so have that guacamole! Nuts, seeds, olive oil, and full fat dairy are good to include. It’s certainly OK to have those delicious holidays sweets and treats: remember that moderation is your friend here.
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help, whether that’s from a good friend, family, or a therapist. We are designed for community, and that includes the community of medical professionals!
Sometimes when you’re hoping to avoid pregnancy, the lengthened fertile window from delayed ovulation can wear on you. The abstinence can become of source of virtue if connected with a reverence for God and his gift of love manifested in your spouse. It’s important to show affection and love, so have a conversation about the best ways to connect intimately in non-sexual ways, and make a point to listen to your spouse to meet their needs. This might mean sharing a cup of tea and conversation after the kids are in bed, offering a back rub, or working on a home project together. My number one recommendation is to pray together, and find an intention for which to offer the struggle. Some of my go-to intentions are for couples suffering from infertility, and couples struggling against impurity.
What about my NFP chart?
Keep charting, and if you know stress is lurking in your life, set up a follow-up appointment with your instructor. They will have the best tips for you on how to chart through stress and managing long and irregular cycles. I think we’re pretty good listeners, too. We’ve been there, we know it’s rough, and you give us more intentions to add to our prayer list!
Need an instructor? We have plenty! Find a class with a Marquette healthcare professional at mmnfp.com/learn