Stress Induced Migraines and How to Cope
Updated: Aug 8
The relationship between high stress and stress induced migraines, and how to cope
You’re under a deadline at work. A new meeting comes up that you need to attend. Your fridge at home has stopped working and the technician is calling you.
All of these stressors piling up…..it’s not surprising that you have a headache or even worse, a migraine.
Headaches and migraines can be disruptive to our sleep, our mood, our productivity, and so much more. A major contributing factor to migraines is stress. Research has indicated that 4 out of 5 people who suffer from migraines report stress as a trigger.
If you are suffering more migraines or severe headaches, you are certainly not alone if stress is a trigger for you. While stress can be a trigger for migraines, migraines can also be a big trigger for feeling stressed, anxious, and down.
Therefore, it is vital to understand the relationship between stress and migraines, as well as how to prevent and manage stress induced migraines.
Stress Induced Migraines: The Stress Connection
It’s helpful to understand how and why stress causes migraines. When stress increases, the sympathetic nervous system in the body is activated. This causes a series of physiological changes, including increased heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and other physiological changes. These vascular changes can trigger a migraine.
When we are more stressed, we tend to experience muscle tension especially in our shoulders and neck, as well as in our jaw, which can cause teeth grinding. These factors can further cause or worsen headaches and migraines, especially in more tension-induced headaches and migraines.
The Role of Sleep in Stressed Induced Migraines
Quality sleep is an important part of low stress, mood, and physical health. However, studies have shown that up to 85% of individuals suffering from migraines experience poor sleep quality or other sleep issues, such as trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early.
This is significant since poor sleep has been identified as a trigger for migraines for many individuals.
Furthermore, poor sleep increases stress levels, which can further trigger migraines. This is due to the release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol levels are higher when individuals are sleeping poorly.
Therefore, poor sleep increases stress and anxiety, and higher stress and anxiety makes it harder to sleep. Because of this relationship, poor sleep may directly impact migraines, as well as indirectly by further increasing stress levels.
Stress Management for Preventing and Managing Migraines
Because stress is a trigger for migraines, and high stress can also result in poor sleep, another trigger for migraines, preventing and managing high stress is crucial for reducing the frequency and intensity of migraines caused by stress and anxiety.
According to the American Headache Society, there are many behavioral migraine treatment options available that can help individuals reduce their stress and improve migraine management.
Relaxation training helps the body to achieve a state of physical and mental calm rather quickly. Because the physiological changes caused by high stress can trigger migraines, especially muscle tension, relaxation training is an important aspect of preventing and managing migraines.
Relaxation training has been shown to decrease activation of the sympathetic nervous system, calming the stress response, and therefore helping reduce physical symptoms that can trigger headaches.
Relaxation training is frequently accomplished with deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Deep breathing specifically can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for inducing relaxation and decreasing symptoms of the stress response such as increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Progressive muscle relaxation can help with reducing muscle tension, especially in the shoulders, neck, and jaw, areas of tension frequently associated with migraine triggers.
An important aspect of prevention is engaging in relaxation training daily, rather than only when experiencing a migraine. It is recommended to set aside 15-20 minutes daily in which you can engage the deep relaxation response with deep breathing and/or progressive muscle relaxation.
A more advanced method of relaxation training is biofeedback. Biofeedback allows individuals to monitor and observe their own body’s reaction to stress with various biofeedback information, such as heart rate, muscle tension, and body temperature in a live session with a qualified provider.
This helps people become more in tune with their body to observe and manage changes related to stress earlier so they can intervene earlier.
Biofeedback has consistently been shown to be a highly effective strategy for managing migraines, as well as reducing the frequency of migraines.
High stress and anxiety can often result in a series of unhelpful, untrue, and catastrophic thoughts.
With migraines and other chronic pain conditions specifically, these thoughts are often related to negative thoughts about one’s ability to manage their migraines, what their future will hold, and other factors related to their wellbeing.
Under high stress and anxiety, these thoughts will be mostly negative and unhelpful, further causing higher stress and anxiety. Negative beliefs about one’s ability to manage can also result in unhelpful behaviors, such as isolation, neglecting care, and turning to substances.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be useful in examining unhelpful thoughts that contribute to stress and anxiety, which allows people to replace unhelpful thoughts with more helpful and realistic thoughts. This improves mood and decreases stress, which can have a positive impact on the intensity and frequency of migraines caused by high stress.
Migraines can interfere in our productivity, relationships, mood, and so much more. Stress is a common trigger for migraines, and therefore prevention and management of high stress is crucial for managing migraines and their negative effects.
The good news is, there are many behavioral and lifestyle strategies that can be utilized to decrease stress to improve migraine frequency and intensity, emotional wellbeing, and overall physical health.
Use a combination of the strategies mentioned above to decrease stress and reach out to a qualified professional for more specific guidance unique to you.
Sick of high stress causing migraines and other physical issues? My 1:1 coaching program will help you prevent and manage high stress so you can feel your best and accomplish all your goals in life.
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------About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)