Work. School. Relationship problems. Health issues. Whatever it is, we all worry about something. And if you suffer from migraine, you may have to add one more thing to that list: stress itself.
That’s because stress can trigger attacks, which can then trigger more stress, which triggers more attacks, and on and on. How can you break the cycle? It isn’t easy, but there are ways to manage your stress and take control of your condition.
We’ve compiled our best tips on reducing stress for migraine sufferers below. But before we get into that, let’s take a step back and talk about the relationship between stress and migraine.
How stress triggers migraine
As you may know from experience, stress can cause attacks. In fact, studies suggest it might be the most common migraine trigger. In one migraine study, 1000 migraineurs were asked to identify their triggers, and 80% said stress was one of them. According to the American Headache Society, four out of five people with migraine say their attacks can be triggered by stress. To make matters worse, doctors believe that high stress levels make migraine sufferers more susceptible to other triggers, including hormonal changes, and that suffering migraine attacks may make people worse at handling stress over time.
Why would your brain react to high levels of stress by putting you in such intense pain that you can’t do anything but lie down? As with so many questions about migraine brains, scientists don’t have a clear-cut answer yet. It may have something to do with the “flight or fight” response—the physical reaction to stress you might remember learning about in school—which causes a rush of chemical and vascular activity in your brain that can make attacks more likely.
This might confuse you if you’ve ever had a really stressful week at work, finally settled down to relax on Saturday, and got rewarded for your attempt at self-care with a painful migraine attack. That’s called a “let-down” headache, which happens when your body relaxes enough that the attack it had been pushing off to get things done finally catches up with you. This creates a frustrating catch-22 for migraine sufferers: Being stressed out can give you a migraine headache, but so can taking a day off.
How to reduce stress to avoid attacks
Even if your stress wasn’t giving you debilitating headaches, it would still be a good idea to get a handle on it. Unchecked stress can cause other medical conditions too, like high blood pressure and TMJ disorders (which can also trigger attacks). Not all stress is avoidable—think of big changes like starting a new job or losing a loved one—but studies show that headaches are more likely to be caused by the daily grind than by major stressful events. That’s good news, because it’s easier to cut down on daily stress than to avoid ever changing your life.
So, how can you reduce your day-to-day stress and get a handle on your condition? First, you’ll want to make sure you know what your priorities are, set a schedule that makes time for the things that are most important to you, and then stick to it by managing your time wisely. If you’re already a scheduling whiz, here are a few pointers you may not have thought of:
- Get enough sleep and do your best to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.
- Exercise regularly. While you should aim for at least 30 minutes most days, just doing something (even walking) is a good start.
- Try yoga, meditation, or other relaxation exercises such as deep breathing.
- Maintain a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Spend more time with family and friends. If you’re not able to spend physical time with them, think about setting up monthly phone calls, sending a long email with what’s going on, or even touching base with a funny GIF via text.
- Get outside. Spending time in nature, even if it’s just a quick walk in a park, can help cut down on stress.
- Do something creative. Hobbies like knitting, drawing, painting, or playing an instrument can help you channel your energy into something that makes you feel better, instead of stressing out.
- Take breaks. It might seem counterproductive to step away when you’re worried about getting work done, but taking a moment to take a walk, chat with a friend, or hug your pet can help you de-stress and come back to your task feeling refreshed and ready to get it done.
- Keep a stress journal. Taking the time to make a note when you feel stressed, including what stressed you out and how you reacted to it, can help you identify the major stressors in your life, find patterns, and make changes to avoid unnecessary stress.
What do migraine experts recommend for reducing stress? “The migraine brain likes consistency, so making schedules as consistent as possible (while also allotting for variations) is helpful,” says Dr. Cristina Wohlgehagen, founder of the International Headache Center and Cove Medical Advisor. “You know your body best, so remember to allow for a daily routine that feels right for you.” She also suggests tracking your attacks to find out if they’re more likely to happen during or after periods of high stress, so you can start to predict them and plan accordingly.
How to handle long-term stress
Sometimes dealing with stress isn’t as simple as getting more exercise or making time to meditate. If the source of your stress is something outside of your control, like a health issue or a demanding job, lifestyle changes may not be enough to calm you down.
Instead, focus on something you can control: the way you react to a stressful situation. Negative self-talk—thoughts like “I can’t do this” or “Everything is going wrong” makes a difficult situation even worse. When you catch yourself thinking this way, try to reframe your thoughts more positively.
Instead of “I can’t do this,” tell yourself, “This is going to be hard, but I can handle it.” Like any habit, negative self-talk can be challenging to quit, but be patient with yourself and keep trying.
Similarly, make an effort to recognize when you’re holding yourself to an impossible standard. Perfectionism may seem like a commitment to doing things right, but expecting perfection from yourself only sets you up for failure. Remember that you’re only human, and be reasonable in what you ask of yourself (and others!).
Other positive mental habits can help you adapt to stress you can’t control. If what you’re worried about is a temporary situation, like rushing to meet a work deadline, remind yourself to look at the big picture. A lot of the time, what you’re worried about right now won’t be important to you a year down the line. Another way to keep things in perspective is to focus on things you’re grateful for. When you feel like you’re failing to meet expectations, reflect on the qualities you like most about yourself and your life.
This might seem like a lot to ask of yourself, but remember that you don’t have to do it all on your own. Lean on your friends and family for support—they’ve probably noticed that you’re not feeling your best and could be looking for ways to help you. If that’s not enough, a mental health professional can help you get to the root of your stress and build better coping habits.
Even if you did manage to exercise every week, eat healthy every day, and get eight solid hours of sleep every night, you’d still get stressed out sometimes. Life is stressful, even when you’re doing everything (well, almost everything) right. That’s why it’s so important to work with a doctor to find the right treatment plan for you, so you can control your condition even when it seems like you can’t control anything else in your life.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
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