Ever wondered if your chronic migraines are linked to stress? Well, there’s a high chance that they are. Not only is stress a common cause of migraine headaches, but the pain and discomfort we experience preceding, during and following attacks can generate high levels of stress and anxiety. This complex relationship can create a vicious cycle.
Nonetheless, it’s a cycle that can be managed. In this article, we look at the connection between stress and migraine, the symptoms of stress-induced migraines, and provide helpful tips to reduce stress and feel good!
How does stress affect the body?
Stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. It’s how the body handles difficult, demanding or upsetting situations that we feel are beyond our control.
Everyone experiences stress. While small amounts of it can be beneficial, when stress becomes intense and long-lasting, it can negatively impact our mental and physical health.
So, what is the biology behind stress? If you perceive a situation as stressful – this could be anything from an impending deadline or preparing for a job interview to a big life event such as divorce or the death of a loved one – the hypothalamus, a small part of your brain, releases the stress hormone cortisol.
As part of the acute stress response, also known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, your breath quickens, your heart races and your blood pressure increases. This physiological reaction is designed to protect us in times of danger, but when the stress response is prolonged, our health is put at risk.
Can stress trigger migraine headaches?
The exact cause of migraine, as a condition, hasn’t yet been established. However, lots of factors are thought to stimulate migraine episodes – sleep disturbances, certain foods, caffeine, alcohol, light, sound, smells, temperature and hormonal changes in women. The list goes on.
According to recent studies, as many as 80% of people who get migraines identify stress as a common trigger, and that’s not all – even reductions in our perceived stress levels may provoke attacks.
Stress migraine symptoms
You may not be able to clearly differentiate between a stress-induced migraine and another type of migraine because the symptoms are likely to be very similar. With stress migraine headaches, you’ll probably notice the symptoms of stress first. These may include:
- Muscle tension or pain
- Upset stomach
- Chest pain
- Rapid heart rate
- Lack of sex drive
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feeling anxious and overwhelmed
- Sadness and depression
- Struggling to make decisions
- Behavioural changes such as sleeping or eating too much or too little
- Intense headache
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Mood changes
- Neck stiffness
- Visual disturbances (from a migraine aura)
- Problems with sensation, speech and movement (from a migraine aura)
Ways to reduce stress
If you think you have migraine from stress, or chronic migraine is causing you stress, don’t lose hope – there are management techniques you can explore. The most important thing that you can do is to focus on reducing your stress levels. We know that’s not as easy as it sounds, but here are a few suggestions that may help:
1. Avoid stressful situations and know your stress triggers
Do you become stressed when you take on extra responsibility at work? Perhaps large crowds set you off? If you can, remove yourself from these situations. If it’s something you can’t avoid – a chronic illness or injury, separation or financial problems, for example – think about actions you can put in place to manage your stressors and reduce your triggers.
2. Focus on holistic health
At the most basic level, eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep will help with stress management. Try to limit drinking too much alcohol, over-eating and ingesting excessive amounts of caffeine, as these things are known to add to stress.
3. Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques are an excellent way to reduce stress. You could try yoga, tai chi, biofeedback, aromatherapy and breathing exercises. One study found that mind-body interventions such as meditation demonstrated a beneficial effect on headache duration, disability self-efficacy and mindfulness.
4. Talk about it
If something is bothering you and making you feel stressed, talking about it can help. Try reaching out to your family members, friends, doctor or therapist. You can also engage in positive self-talk. This is the way you talk to yourself – your inner voice. It can be negative and bring you down, but it can also be supportive, encouraging and motivating! Tell yourself: “I can get through this” or “I’ve done my best today.”
5. Write it down
Many people find that keeping a journal can be a beneficial stress management technique. Sometimes when we’re feeling stressed, we don’t see things clearly. Writing can allow us to be reflective and understand our thought processes and situations more effectively.
Stress migraine relief
Fortunately, there are many types of migraine relief available, including our To Better Days active patches. Designed specifically for migraine headaches, they feature a natural combination of vitamin D, chamomile, lavender and ginger, and can be applied directly to the source of discomfort – the forehead, temples or neck – to shorten the length and severity of migraines and reduce recovery time!