The link between stress and migraines

Stress is the response we have to situations that demand that we focus our minds and bodies in some way. Some stress can be thrilling, such as the exhilaration of negotiating a ski trail down a steep mountain. Other stress can be unpleasant, such as the anxiety of being late for a presentation at work, or the frustrations of a family disagreement. Whatever the source, stress generally creates a “fight or flight” response, as stress hormones flood our bodies to help us meet the challenge.

In response to these hormones our muscles tighten, we breathe faster, and our hearts speed up. If the stress is “acute,” meaning it does not last long, these effects soon disappear. But if you are feeling stress every day, for weeks or months at a time, this is called “chronic,” and it can have some serious consequences on your health.

It is this chronic kind of stress that may have an effect on migraine. What we know about stress and migraine can be summed up in three ways: good news, bad news, good news. The good news is that stress alone is no longer thought to be a migraine trigger in the way that foods, hormones or weather are triggers. The bad news is that a theory called “diasthesis stress” tells us that if you have a genetic predisposition to certain disorders, stress can make you more vulnerable to them. In the case of migraine, this means that stress may make you more susceptible to your triggers, make the headache worse, or prolong it. But, the second piece of good news is that there is much you can do to take control of the stress in your life, minimizing its effects on your migraine.

Many patients tend to downplay or ignore the role of stress, since they are so used to feeling that way in their lives. However, a first step in understanding the effects of stress on your migraine is for you and your health care professional to carefully examine the sources and effects of stress in your life.

Stress can come from many sources, and people may respond differently to the same source: job, money worries, feeling overscheduled, major life changes, difficult relationships or even just being cut off in traffic. But whatever the source, the result is the same. If your stress is chronic, meaning that you feel it almost every day, this may make your migraines occur more frequently and with more pain.

Reduce your stress to reduce your migraine symptoms

When you have figured out where your stress is coming from, the next step is to examine its effects on your life. Are you overeating? Yelling at your kids? Abusing alcohol or drugs? And do you notice that your migraines are increasing, lasting longer, or becoming more painful? These are all signals that it is time to take action to lower your stress levels.” Depending on your particular reactions to stress, here are some suggestions for you:

  • Be creative about changing the sources of your stress. Family overscheduled? See what can be eliminated. Create a one-night “oasis of calm” each week, when you stay home and relax.
  • Get the “fight” out. If you feel that anger is bursting out of you, tame it by doing some regular, vigorous exercise every day, such as brisk walking, jogging, or a spinning or aerobics class.
  • Keep a journal. Writing your worries down has been shown to reduce stress and alleviate some pain.
  • Calm your body down. You can’t be hyperaroused and calm at the same time. Do whatever feels most comfortable to you: Sign up for classes in meditation, yoga, or tai chi (also called “moving meditation”), or find a trained biofeedback therapist. Practice deep, slow breathing, or go for a long walk or bike ride in nature.

There are many things about your health that you cannot control. But you do have the power to reduce your stress and its negative health effects.

References

Pennebaker J. (1997). Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, revised edition. New York: Guilford Press.

American Psychological Association Help Center, (2004). Kinds of stress. Retrieved June 20, 2008 from http://www.apahelpcenter.org/