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26 May 2013
Link between psychological vulnerabilities and menstrual cycle examined

New findings from University College London suggest a monthly window of opportunity could potentially be targeted to prevent common mental health problems developing in women. The research is the first to show a potential link between psychological vulnerability and the timing of a biological cycle, in this case ovulation.

A common symptom of mood and anxiety problems is the tendency to experience repetitive and unwanted thoughts. These "intrusive thoughts" often occur in the days and weeks after a stressful experience. In this study, the researchers examined whether the effects of a stressful event are linked to different stages of the menstrual cycle.

The participants were 41 women aged from 18 to 35 who had regular menstrual cycles and were not using the pill as a form of contraception. Each woman watched a 14-minute stressful film containing death or injury and provided a saliva sample so that hormone levels could be assessed. They were then asked to record instances of unwanted thoughts about the video over the following days.

"We found that women in the early luteal phase [16 to 20 days after the start of their period] had more than three times as many intrusive thoughts as those who watched the video in other phases of their menstrual cycle," explained study author Sunjeev Kamboj. "This indicates that there is actually a fairly narrow window within the menstrual cycle when women may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing distressing symptoms after a stressful event."

The findings could have important implications for mental health problems and their treatment in women who have suffered trauma. "Asking women who have experienced a traumatic event about the time since their last period might help identify those at greatest risk of developing recurring symptoms similar to those seen in psychological disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]," said Kamboj.

The new work may have identified a useful line of enquiry for doctors, to help identify potentially vulnerable women who could be offered preventative therapies. "However, this is only a first step," Kamboj notes. "Although we found large effects in healthy women after they experienced a relatively mild stressful event, we now need to see if the same pattern is found in women who have experienced a real traumatic event."

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Source: University College London

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