Stress is the most commonly reported migraine trigger, according to research. Preventing headaches is possible with stress management strategies.
Migraine is more than just a really bad headache. In fact, a migraine episode can feel completely debilitating.
Beyond throbbing head pain, migraine can also cause pain in your face and neck. Some people experience blurred vision or extreme light sensitivity. Others feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, or sensitive to sound.
Migraine episodes can last for several hours to a few days.
Experts don’t fully understand the causes of migraine, so preventing these headaches can be challenging. However, there are certain triggers that can cause the onset of a migraine attack.
Understanding your migraine triggers can increase your chances of avoiding them. And one of the major triggers for migraine episodes is stress.
Stress can be defined as how your body reacts to the stressors in life, which can be anything from an unpaid bill, being late to work, watching a scary movie, or encountering a wild animal on a hiking trail.
If something causes your body to trigger its “fight, flight, or freeze” response, it can be considered a stressor.
Everyone is familiar with this biological response and the adrenaline surge that follows. You may even have experienced the headache that followed as your mind and body calmed down — particularly after a sudden and scary situation, like a car accident.
However, for some people, this kind of headache can come from other stressors that are not as immediately harmful or life threatening.
“Stress is a known trigger for migraine,” says Dr. Bradley Katz, a neuro-ophthalmologist at the University of Utah Medical Center and CEO of Axon Optics. “Major stressful life events can also contribute to chronic migraine.”
Participants with chronic migraine scored higher on the PSS, compared to a separate control group. The study indicated that migraine participants’ overall quality of life score was also impacted by their perceived stress levels.
Anxiety or worry about upcoming events or anticipated stress can cause some people to have anxiety headaches. In a lot of these cases, your body reacts with an adrenaline charge, but without a physical, present threat to fight or run away from.
A stress-induced migraine attack often feels like classic migraine, only it coincides with stressful events or situations.
Everyone’s experience with migraine is unique, and the symptoms you experience might be different from someone else’s.
For some, certain symptoms may appear a day or 2 before a migraine attack strikes. These symptoms, also known as the “prodrome stage,” can include:
- low energy
- neck stiffness
- food cravings
The next stage of a migraine is called the “aura stage.” Not everyone with migraine experiences this stage, but for those who do, symptoms may include:
- trouble with vision or losing vision temporarily
- tingling sensations in the body
- trouble speaking clearly
The final stage is the actual migraine headache stage, and symptoms can include:
- severe pain on just one side of your head
- extreme sensitivity to bright lights
- heavy pulsing head pain
If you have found that stress is a frequent cause of migraine episodes, you aren’t alone.
- stress (79.7% of participants)
- hormones (65.1%)
- hunger or missing a meal (57.3%)
- weather shifts (53.2%)
This is why it can be important to examine what “stress” means to you and what you consider a stressor.
“Daily stressors, like having a long commute, a stressful job, or managing the household and kids, can trigger stress-induced migraine,” says Katz. “A highly stressful major life event can also trigger chronic migraine [episodes].”
A 2020 report on major stressors in the United States found that Gen Z adults ages 18 to 23 years old had the highest stress levels (6.1 out of 10) during 2020. And understandably so, as they faced the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and an uncertain future.
In comparison, the same report found that people ages 56 to 74 averaged stress levels of 4.0, and those 75 and older averaged 3.3. This suggests that different people and demographics can experience very different stress levels, even during uniquely stressful times.
Stress can be unique to you
Pinpointing stress triggers isn’t always as easy as looking at a list of possible stressors.
You may need to decide for yourself what causes stress or ask your loved ones or therapist to discuss what your triggers might be.
Preventing stress-induced migraine often starts with addressing stress in your life as a trigger.
Stress management skills
Improving stress management skills can help lower your stress levels. Some strategies might include:
- getting enough sleep and keeping a regular sleep routine
- eating enough nutritious foods and staying hydrated every day
- relaxing with hobbies and activities you love
- exercising regularly
- spending time outdoors in nature
- mindfulness and meditation practices
There are FDA-approved medications that can help treat or prevent migraine, including:
- erenumab (Aimovig)
- lasmiditan (Reyvow)
- ubrogepant (Ubrelvy)
Experiencing stress-induced migraine can be more than just painful, it can also impact your quality of life. And since more research on causes of migraine headaches is needed, preventing them can often be difficult.
Examining which stressors might be triggering your migraine can be a great place to start. Once you understand your triggers, you can work to lower your daily stress levels via stress management techniques and self-care.
“Consider seeking help from a therapist or doctor if your stress-induced migraine is affecting your daily life,” says Katz. “Your therapist can help you to learn to manage your stress while your doctor may prescribe medications that provide temporary relief.”