happysadBeing able to detect emotions in people’s faces is an important trait since it helps you communicate with others more effectively. For instance, it tells you when a friend is troubled so you can offer help, when a hiring manager is getting bored during an interview so you can pump up your enthusiasm or when you need to stop serving your roommate fried okra because she doesn’t actually like it.

So, you might find it interesting to discover that your ability to detect emotions tends to fluctuate throughout your menstrual cycle.

Generally speaking, during the first half of your cycle (from the first day of your period through ovulation) you’re better at interpreting facial cues to figure out what someone is feeling, according to a handful of studies (like this one, this one and this one).

Researchers theorize that it’s because rising estrogen on these cycle days is pushing you to make more social connections and seek out a mate. So, being accurately tuned in to someone’s mood would be important for better and quicker communication.

However, one study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology shows that you may have one weak spot when it comes to interpreting emotions in the first half of your cycle: According to this research, high estrogen makes you less likely to spot sadness and disgust in others on the days leading up to ovulation. It may be because high estrogen is boosting your mood and reducing your worry, so you’re not on the lookout for negative emotions that might indicate trouble.

Contrast this with the second half of your cycle (which spans from the day after ovulation to the day before your next period): On these days, research shows you’re more likely to interpret someone’s neutral facial expression as angry or sad–when, in fact, the person is feeling just fine. That’s because progesterone puts you on higher alert for potential problems to watch out for in case you got pregnant during ovulation and need to be more careful. As a result, you’re scrutinizing the world–and all the people in it–with a more critical, wary eye.

So, what’s the takeaway here? 

When reading someone’s face to gauge their emotional temperature, keep in mind where you are in your monthly cycle:

If you’re in the first half of your cycle, go with your gut because your high estrogen is generally making you more likely to be correct.

However, also be aware that you may be missing signals that someone is sad or distressed, so try to pay closer attention to these cues.

If you’re in the second half and you’re getting a negative vibe, remember that your plummeting hormones are making you less accurate at judging facial expressions. So while you may be assuming that someone is angry or scared, they may simply be concentrating on work, figuring out a problem in their head or daydreaming. So, accept them at their word if they tell you they’re a-okay.

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Gabrielle Lichterman is a longtime women’s health and lifestyle journalist whose articles have appeared in dozens of major magazines and newspapers around the globe including Cosmopolitan, CosmoGIRL, Glamour, Marie Claire, The New York Daily News and Woman’s World. Gabrielle began developing Hormonology® and the Hormone Horoscope® in 1999 and has been sharing menstrual cycle-related research and tips through her apps, blog, book, newsletter and magazine articles ever since.

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[Photo: Kate Ter Haar]