Stress, a well-known factor in PMS, is a widely studied aspect of modern life. It’s everywhere: at work, at home caused by families, and even in social relationships. While some stress is necessary and even beneficial, too much unleashes a host of negative consequences on the body and the psyche.

There are three types of stress: psychological, physiological, and environmental:

Psychological stress

  • Emotional or mental problems

  • Trauma

Physiological stress

  • Fatigue

  • Injury

  • Surgery

  • Starvation

  • Illness

Environmental stress

  • Excessive sound

  • Excessive light

  • Heat

  • Cold


Stress can depress the immune system and may be harmful to certain parts of the brain. Stress also affects multiple organ systems in the body, including the cardiovascular and glandular systems. Stress also makes women more vulnerable to PMS.

Good Stress

Though it seems unlikely at first glance, some stress is good for you. It challenges your body and your development individual. Stressing your muscles makes them grow, while your personal life, such as deadlines and expectations, can motivate you to work harder and push your boundaries. Some stress may be beneficial to health. In 2000, researchers at Ohio State University showed that short bursts of stress can actually enhance immune response.

The sympathetic nervous system responds to threatening by preparing for danger (both real and imagined). Breathing, rate, and blood pressure increase, senses and memory sharper, there is less sensitivity to pain, and the muscles and are fueled with oxygen-rich blood. When the stress is perceived positive, it makes a person more alert, feeling challenged, “juiced,” or “in the zone.”

Bad Stress

Chronic and excessive stress are entirely different matters. Stress is the body's response to danger, and if you feel constantly threatened, you deplete your mental and physical resources always trying to stay on alert. Too much stress makes you feel overwhelmed or powerless. Usually, the initial signs of this kind of negative stress are physical: you feel anxious or irritable, your head and muscles ache, you’re preoccupied, and you may come down with a virus more easily. Of course, your PMS symptoms also usually worsen.

The following hormones and neurotransmitters are involved the stress response:

  • Corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) is released by the hypothalamus in response to a threatening stimulus. CRH triggers the release of cortisol.

  • Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, cues various systems throughout the body, including the heart, lungs, and metabolism, to respond to a threat. The brain also releases the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

  • Dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine (or adrenaline) activate an area in the brain called the amgydala, which triggers an emotional response, such as fear, to the stressful stimulus. These chemical messengers also allow a person react quickly by suppressing short-term memory, inhibition, rational thought, and the ability to handle complex social and intellectual tasks.

The Health Effects of Stress

Stress also contributes to serious illnesses and health conditions. For example, there is a growing body of evidence that stress contributes to heart disease. A British study of ten thousand civil servants found a link between chronic work stress and the symptoms of metabolic syndrome, a collection of health risk factors such as obesity and high blood pressure that can lead to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Stress also contributes to asthma and bronchitis, can lead to gastrointestinal problems (such as ulcers and chronic diarrhea), is associated with high blood pressure, and can alter heart rhythms. Many women with asthma often find their symptoms worsen in the premenstrual phase. A 1998 Danish study suggests that stress is partly to blame. Researchers examined the psychological and physical status of ten women with asthma during a six-month period and found that lowered resistance to stress and lowered resistance to infection combined to make bronchial activity worse.


There is evidence that many people with depression have high of the stress hormone CRH. Excess production of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone, leads to a rare disease called Cushing’s syndrome.

In women, stress poses serious physical and mental problems. Chronic stress in women may reduce estrogen levels, which puts cardiac health at risk. Many conditions that affect women disproportionately, such as eating disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, are linked to stress. Stress also has multiple effects sexuality and reproduction. Stress can reduce libido and the ability achieve orgasm; severely elevated cortisol levels can stop a woman’s menstrual periods; and stress during pregnancy has been linked higher risk of miscarriage, especially early in the first trimester.

Social Stress

Relationships with others— family members, spouses, neighbors, coworkers, friends, or strangers— are a major source of stress. Any social situation can produce problems for some individuals, and certain groups of people are particularly vulnerable to social stress (e.g., children who are bullied; chronically ill adults without a support system; older adults who care for disabled children, spouses, or parents; and seniors whose spouses have died).

Top Stressors

In 1967, psychiatrist Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, a Navy scientist, created a scale of the most stressful events in a person's life, known as the Holmes-Rahe scale. For adults, the death of a spouse is the most stressful event, given a score of 100 points. Here is how some other events compare:

Stressful Events


Point Value


60 points


60 points

Jail term or probation

60 points

Being fired

45 points

Working more than 40 hours per week

35 points

Foreclosure of a mortgage or loan

25 points


15 points

Winter holiday season

10 points

It’s interesting that menopause is as stressful as a jail term and that, while it’s at the low end of the scale, PMS merits its own entry!

Social stress can manifest itself as shyness, loneliness, intimidation, competitiveness, and hostility toward others. It affects both physical and mental health. People without support systems suffer more severe depression symptoms.

Reacting to Stress

It's simply not possible to avoid stress, nor is it even necessarily good. But it is possible to manage reactions to stress. Stress management is critical for women with severe PMS, since the more stressed they are, the worse their symptoms get (the corollary is that a woman who is prone to stress easily is also more likely to get PMS). Having a supportive partner and a strong social network are very important to managing both stress and PMS.

Men and women manage stress differently. While men favor a fight-or-flight approach, women would rather “tend and befriend,” according to a 2000 study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. Shelley Taylor, Ph.D., a psychology professor at UCLA, and her colleagues, reviewed dozens of studies of stress on animals and humans. They found that stressed females spent more time tending to vulnerable offspring than males did and theorized that endorphins and oxytocin, a female reproductive hormone, may play an important role in establishing this behavior. Women also befriend other women in times of stress.

When you are besieged by violent mood swings, feel and depressed, when your body and head ache, and you feel uncomfortable or even ill, it helps tremendously to know is someone who understands that your experience and feelings genuine, even if they can’t really do anything about it other support you. In cases where social support is not enough of then therapy or counseling, which can help you find strategies cope with stress, is appropriate.

  1. Home
  2. PMS
  3. Risk Factors
  4. Stress
Visit other About.com sites: