How do you deal with stress with PCOS? 5 tips for managing stress when you have polycystic ovary syndrome

Everybody experiences stress from time to time. But research suggests that people with PCOS have increased perceived stress (and depression and anxiety) than those who don’t have PCOS. Stress, by the way, isn’t inherently “bad”. Eustress, the name given to “good” or helpful stress, can actually be really positive. It’s the fizzing excitement you feel when you start a new job you’re really looking forward to. It increases alertness, so can be beneficial for physical activity, starting new hobbies or work projects, and socialising too.  

Stress becomes harmful when it exceeds our ability to cope. And, left unchecked, it can have physical, psychological, emotional and behavioural impacts, including muscle pain and tension, restlessness, anxiety, reduced sex drive, fatigue, and drug or alcohol misuse. Long term, chronic stress could increase your risk of heart and circulatory disease.

Does stress make PCOS worse?

Honestly? The relationship between PCOS and stress isn’t 100% clear cut. We know that stress doesn’t cause PCOS, but it’s widely believed that it may have an influence on symptoms. 

One theory is that high levels of cortisol, the hormone that’s released when we’re under stress, could interfere with the body’s insulin response. Some 65-70% of people who have PCOS and are insulin resistant.

What we do know, however, is that stress impacts everything from sleep and appetite to mental wellbeing, all of which can have a knock-on effect when it comes to PCOS symptoms. Therefore, it's advisable to take measures to manage your stress, when possible. 

5 ways to deal with stress when you have PCOS

Exercise

Movement has many, many benefits. Research supports that it can be helpful for treating PCOS (120 minutes of moderate-vigorous intensity exercise per week is thought to be a sweet spot for people with PCOS), and it’s also great for reducing stress, too.

There are a few reasons for this, namely that movement triggers the release of feel-good hormones called endorphins, which encourage feelings of pleasure and happiness, and reduce levels of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, experiment with different types of activity until you find something you genuinely enjoy (you’re more likely to be consistent with exercise if you find it fun). It needn’t be high intensity, either. You could start with walking, swimming, cycling, or yoga, for instance. 

Prioritise sleep quality

A lack of quality sleep can have a huge impact on your mental wellbeing, so it’s important to prioritise getting enough kip every night. One study, which explored possible links between sleep duration and stress, found that short sleep duration may be associated with increased perceived stress compared with adequate sleep duration. This means that quantity is just as important as quality when it comes to sleep.

What can you do to improve your sleep quality? First and foremost, allow plenty of time to sleep – 7-9 hours is ideal for most people. The next port of call is to improve your sleep hygiene (which, essentially, means cultivating healthy habits when it comes to sleep). Try:

  • Sticking to the same bedtime and wake-up time every day (yes, even on the weekends).
  • Investing in quality bedding – a supportive mattress, a cosy duvet and pillows, and sheets made from natural and breathable fibres.
  • Setting aside time to wind down before bed. This could involve dimming lights, turning off devices, doing your skincare routine, and engaging in calming activities, such as reading, journalling, or meditating.
  • Avoiding alcohol and caffeineclose to bedtime.
  • Ridding your bedroom of light and sound pollution by investing in black-out window dressings and, possibly, a white noise machine if loud noises often disrupt your sleep.

Make time for hobbies

Studies have confirmed that partaking in leisurely activities that you find enjoyable is associated with improved wellbeing. To capitalise on this, make time in your schedule every week (or, every day if you can manage it) for your hobbies – whether you love to read, sew, paint, cook, game, or brunch with friends. Approach your allocated hobby time in the same way you would an important meeting – don’t cancel, don’t push it to the bottom of your to-do list, don’t do it half-heartedly. 

Practice relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help to slow down your heart rate, lower blood pressure, improve digestion, and reduce activity of stress hormones, so they’re well worth a try if you’re looking to get better at managing stress. Some relaxation techniques you could experiment with include:

  • Visualisation
  • Breathwork
  • Meditation
  • Journalling
  • Massage
  • Yoga
  • Aromatherapy
  • Tapping
  • Sound therapy

Open up

Research has shown that speaking and writing about stressful events can be beneficial for physical and emotional health, so try to commit time to journalling your thoughts or opening up to someone.

Hopefully, you’re surrounded by supportive and compassionate people who are willing to lend an ear when it’s needed. If you’re keen to connect with others who understand what it’s like to have PCOS, join The PCOS Collective – our private Facebook group for Cysters to share stories, experiences, and offer support to one another.

If you feel you could benefit from professional mental health support, speak to your GP to explore the option of talking therapy. If talking therapy isn’t immediately available to you, check out Health Hub, an online therapy service that offers free 20-minute phone or video calls to anybody needing emotional or mental support. It’s run by qualified volunteer psychotherapists and counsellors and is available to all UK adults.

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