19th February 2022

What To Do When Stress is a Migraine Trigger

Last Modified: August 3, 2022

If you've ever experienced a stress migraine, you know that it's not something you would wish on anyone. Seeing flashing lights, bright spots, or shapes, the unbearable pain on one or both sides of your head or feeling nauseous and even vomiting—a migraine attack is not something you can easily forget.

While everyone has different migraine triggers, stress sits up there on most people's lists. According to a  2017 study in the Journal of Headache and Pain., about 80% of migraine patients with identifiable triggers reported stress as a common trigger. 

Now more than ever before, stress levels are elevated due to COVID-19. And this is just another addition to the stressors we had before the pandemic came along.

From your demanding boss at work to gloomy news cycles, there are stress triggers everywhere you look. As a result, the notion of eliminating all sources of stress has never worked and is not about to. This makes avoiding stress-induced migraines pretty tough. 

So is there anything you can do about your stress migraines, or do you just resign yourself to fate?

The good news is you not helpless! While it is nearly impossible to eliminate all stressors in your life, there are ways you can manage stress and mitigate the migraine itself.

But first:

Why Does Stress Cause Migraines?

It's essential to understand how your migraines might be attributed to stress.

To date, researchers and scientists are yet to identify the exact cause behind migraines, leave alone the connection between stress and migraines.

However, the general consensus is that it has to do with how our bodies respond to stress in the first place, i.e. our fight or flight response.

The same 2017 study we quoted above goes on to state that "in short-term stressful situations (like a last-minute work deadline), stress hormones like cortisol are released, which can impact the neural and chemical pathways believed to be associated with migraine."

On the other hand, people suffering from chronic stress may undergo structural changes in the brain that could make migraine attacks worse—or even result in the migraines becoming chronic.

Related: Why Keeping a Migraine Diary is Critical for Chronic Migraine

Stress Migraine Symptoms 

First, we must clarify that a "stress migraine" is not classified as a diagnosis in a clinical setting. This is because a stress-induced migraine will often present the same symptoms as any other migraine trigger.

That being said, knowing how the symptoms present themselves is a crucial step to overcoming your migraine attacks.

Phase One

Oftentimes, you'll first notice symptoms of stress before the symptoms of a migraine. Physical effects of stress include:

  • Upset stomach
  • muscle tension
  • Irritability or sadness
  • Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing.
  • Exhaustion or trouble sleeping.
  • lack of sex drive

Phase Two

Some of the migraine symptoms start to manifest before the onset of the actual migraine. This is known as the prodrome stage and can begin a day or two before the migraine attack. Symptoms of this stage may include:

  • fatigue
  • food cravings
  • mood changes
  • neck stiffness
  • constipation
  • frequent yawning

Phase Three

When the headache begins, it's referred to as the attack phase. 

Symptoms may include:

  • throbbing head pain on one or both sides of your head, in your temples, or in the front or back
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint or lightheaded

While these symptoms can last from a few hours to a few days, the severity will vary from person to person. 

Also, some people may experience migraine with aura, which is typically associated with vision disturbances, problems with sensation, speech, and movement, 

Phase Four

This is the final phase, also known as the postdrome phase. It can cause mood changes that range from euphoria and feeling very happy to feeling tired and worn out. You may also have a dull headache. These symptoms usually last for about 24 hours.

Sick young woman lying on the couch and holding her head with hand. Ill woman lying on the sofa with high temperature.

Stress migraine vs tension headache

Though both can be brought about by stress, they are totally different.

Anyone who has experienced a migraine will tell you up-front that it is nothing like a tension headache.

Tension-type headache is a mild-to-moderate headache that is generally brought about by muscle tightness in areas like the head, scalp, neck, or upper back. 

The main symptom of tension headache is a dull pain on both sides of the head which doesn't come with any of the other symptoms that are very specific to migraines.

How To Deal With Stress-induced Migraines

So, how do you get rid of stress migraines? To be upfront and frank about it--it's not easy, but it is doable.

This is because everyone handles and copes with stress differently. Also, any number of situations can be a potential trigger for a stress migraine.

From big life changes, such as moving to a country or getting a divorce, to

something as mundane as watching the news can set off the onset of an attack.

In some instances, it's not the stress event that causes the migraine but rather the "let down" effect. After a high-stress situation, certain chemicals lingering from your body's stress response can trigger a migraine.

The first step is to get an official diagnosis.

One of the most critical steps in treating your stress-induced migraines is to schedule a visit with your doctor or a specialist who focuses on migraine. Especially, if you suspect you might be suffering from chronic migraines.

Create a treatment game plan

 The way to treat a stress migraine is the same as a migraine attack that is triggered by anything else.

Your doctor might prescribe a beta-blocker, antidepressant, or anticonvulsant. These medications can reduce migraine frequency by at least 50%. They might also recommend pain relievers and triptans for when the migraine attack occurs.

Get Botox

Botox uses go beyond fighting off wrinkles and can offer a much-needed reprieve from migraines. As a matter of fact, the FDA and MHRA approved Botox to treat chronic migraines more than a decade ago. 

At Dr Aesthetica, we've been successfully treating chronic migraines with Botox for a couple of years. The botox time blocks the neurotransmitters that transmit pain signals from your brain to the nerve endings around your head and neck. This effectively posts a stop to the pain caused by chronic migraines and slash your migraine days by over 50%.

Botox injection points for chronic migraine

Minimise stress triggers

Stress management isn't the easiest thing to do, but it just has to be done. So take an inventory of your lifestyle and work towards eliminating your stress triggers. 

To help with the process, we recommend that people suffering from chronic migraines maintain a migraine diary. The diary will help identify possible triggers as well as track the effectiveness of any medications or treatment options you're taking. If you recognise a pattern, minimise your exposure to the trigger. For example, if you're someone who experiences a lot of workplace stress, maybe request to take up fewer responsibilities. 

Long gone are the days when getting migraine was stigmatised. Don't be afraid to stand for yourself, make boundaries, and request concessions that positively impact your health.

Hopefully, this should reduce the frequency of your migraines.

Don't neglect the usual stuff like getting sufficient sleep every night, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.

Practice relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing, meditation and nature walks. These are good ways to diffuse stress and calm the body and mind.

To Wrap Up

Look for your own stress coping strategies. Lean in and find enjoyment in the activities that make us the happiest. Remember, rest is as important as working hard. Surround yourself with people who lift you up emotionally.

Be encouraged; you are not helpless when it comes to your stress migraines!

Post Reviewed by: Dr Baldeep Farmah
Medically Reviewed on: 19th February 2022
Dr Baldeep Farmah is the Medical Director and lead Doctor of Dr Aesthetica, a Medical Aesthetic Clinic.

"We want to empower everyone who walks through our clinic doors, to be able to look in the mirror and see a happier, brighter version of themselves."

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