Think back to a time when something super-stressful happened to you, for instance, the moment you found out you lost your job, you realized you left your wallet behind in a coffee shop or you walked into classroom to discover you forgot it was the day of a major exam and you didn’t study.
Chances are, your heart started thumping faster, your palms got sweaty and your mind went totally blank.
This reaction, as you probably already know, is due in large part to a sudden spike in cortisol, which is a stress hormone that puts you on alert and triggers that “fight or flight” response you read about in school. It’s one your body’s ways of dealing with stress: It wants to pump up your energy and help you focus all your attention on the situation at hand so you can take quick life-saving action if needed.
Now think back to what happened after you processed the initial shock of that stressor and dealt with the situation: You probably calmed down, reached out to friends, family or colleagues for support and went from feeling on-edge to being wiped out and fatigued.
Well, turns out that this Part 2 of your stress response may be due to a spike progesterone that also occurs during stressful situations.
That’s the suggestion from a new study in the journal Neurobiology of Stress that studied women during the first half of their menstrual cycle–which is when progesterone is normally at its lowest level. Researchers discovered that when women in these low-progesterone cycle days got highly stressed, they experienced a significant rise in both cortisol and progesterone.
However, unlike progesterone that’s churned out from the ovaries during the second half of your cycle, this spike in progesterone came from the adrenal glands–a small set of glands on top of your kidneys. And these glands happen to also produce cortisol.
Considering that the adrenal glands are pumping out both cortisol and progesterone together in response to high-tension situations, the researchers theorize that these two hormones work in tandem to help you deal with stress:
First, the cortisol quickly energizes you and gets you ready for action.
Then after the initial threat is over, the progesterone kicks in to reverse cortisol’s stimulating effects: It’s sedating, which calms you, and it motivates you to seek out social support, which is a study-proven way to ease tension.
This study didn’t examine the effects of progesterone during the second half of the menstrual cycle when progesterone is normally pumped out in high amounts from the ovary, however, the researchers speculate that the elevated dose of this hormone on these cycle days may have the same effects on us in stressful situations.
What you can walk away with from all this: Your body has your back in stressful moments thanks to a one-two punch of hormones that get you zippy at first, then calm you down after.