How Can I Manage My Stress When I Suffer From Migraines?
By Ryan Jacobs M.D.
Migraines are a type of headache that presents in a series of stages. There is a prodrome stage which is usually characterized by fatigue, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound. During this phase, you could also experience neck stiffness or sleep problems.
In some individuals, you could also experience the aura stage. The aura stage is characterized by numbness and tingling in various parts of the body and vision changes. Most people, if not all, migraine sufferers will experience the headache stage, characterized by throbbing, pulsating, debilitating pain around the head, along with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sounds, and even odors. In some individuals, you could also experience the aura stage. The aura stage is characterized by numbness and tingling in various parts of the body and vision changes. It gets increasingly harder to focus or concentrate on your day-to-day activities, and you could then experience growing fatigue or the need to go into a dark setting.
How are migraines linked to stress?
Doctors may not know the exact mechanisms of how stress leads to migraines; however, they do know that there is a link between them nonetheless. The hormones cortisol and adrenaline spike in times of stress, activating the sympathetic central nervous system to prepare the body for “fight or flight.” At that time, the brain also releases various other chemicals which cause a range of brain and bodily changes, including dilation of the blood vessels and increased muscle tension, a common migraine factor.
In some cases, when you are experiencing stress, it isn’t the stress itself that precipitates the migraine, but just the spike in hormones and neurotransmitters, followed by a reduction in stressors that can trigger your migraines. Hence, your migraines may actually last longer than the time in which you are experiencing stress; and can surface anywhere between hours, even days later.
What can you do to manage your stress?
The first step to take to manage your stress is to have a better awareness of your triggers. If you find that certain people or situations bring about stress, find ways to manage how you respond to those triggers in a safe and productive way so as not to trigger your sympathetic nervous system. Those changes to your behaviors, such as giving yourself space from the person or situation, reflecting, journaling, or showing yourself comfort by replacing that interaction with something positive that brings you joy, may be helpful changes you can make to manage your stress levels.
Do things that are enjoyable for you, such as moving around, exercising, meditating, or self-reflecting. Give yourself time to relax and rest. In times of high stress, it may also be helpful to do deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxations. Generally, moving your body during high stress can increase your serotonin and dopamine levels, two “feel good” neurotransmitters that can change your mood and help ward off a migraine.
Studies show that spending time with the people closest to you helps to relieve stress. Alternatively, and if it feels good to you, spend time around your friends and family. Your stress can be greatly minimized by increasing your interactions and prioritizing your most treasured relationships.
Sleep is another effective way to manage your stress. Recent studies have shown that a vast majority of people living with migraines also have poor sleep quality. We know that not getting enough restful sleep can increase headache frequency, as well as depression and anxiety. Before you go to bed in order to maintain good sleep hygiene, shut off your digital screens at least an hour before you plan to go to bed, avoid caffeinated beverages, and try to go to bed around the same time every night.
You may also want to think about incorporating balance in all aspects of your life. Balance your diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and proteins. Balance your schedule so that you aren’t trying to accomplish too many things at once or a part of your day that could increase your stress level. And balance your physical activity, as too much intense exercise can cause headaches.
What migraine treatments are available once you experience stress and a migraine?
Once you have experienced stress and feel a migraine coming on, there are a few activities you can do that may relieve you of both. While meditation can be an effective tool to relieve stress and migraine before it happens, it can also support you during those times. It can help reduce muscle tension so that your body can relax and, if caught in the early stages of a migraine, can be an extremely effective reliever of your migraine.
Yoga can be an effective treatment as well. Certain poses where you are upright, your head is above your hips, and your heart can relieve the tension and blood flow around your head, which causes the migraine.
Studies have also shown that practicing Tai Chi, a Chinese form of low-impact meditative movements, was another effective way to reduce your migraine and stress levels. It reduces your sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response so that your body can relax and lower the spike of the stress hormones. Over time, Tai Chi can also supports better sleep and improves your general quality of life, which can lessen the frequency of your migraine and the pain.
If your migraine prolongs and the pain continues to increase despite your attempts to relieve your stress levels, immediately contact your doctor for support.