As many as 8 in 10 people report stress as a trigger for migraine attacks. Here’s how I reduce stress and better manage my migraine symptoms.
Having chronic migraine means I’m often on high alert, looking out for symptoms of an impending attack. Living with migraine is stressful.
When I meet people who also live with migraine, we’re quick to swap stories. We talk about what type of attacks we get, what our triggers are, and what medications or remedies we reach for when an attack is in full swing.
While I wish we didn’t have to deal with migraine, it’s comforting knowing others understand what I’m going through.
While factors like diet, sleep, hydration, and weather changes, are often discussed as migraine triggers, one that’s sometimes overlooked is stress.
In a 2007 study, about 80 percent of participants reported stress being a trigger of their migraine attacks. Additional studies acknowledged that it is difficult to determine if stress has a causal affect on migraine because of recall bias or the ability to remember past occurrences. A more recent study found that higher levels of perceived stress were associated with more frequent migraine attacks.
This correlation could be due to a variety of reasons. For example, someone may attribute migraine episodes to “work stress” when in reality their demanding work schedule makes it hard for them to get enough rest and it is the lack of sleep that is actually triggering the attacks.
Because rest has a negative connotation in today’s work environment, we may find ourselves downplaying the pressures of our daily schedule in order to not sound “lazy”.
We might try to push through the pain so coworkers or employers don’t think we’re using illness as an excuse to take the day off of work. Having an invisible illness can be debilitating, not only physically but mentally. There are a lot of misconceptions attached to migraine.
This can create even more stress or add to our lists of daily stressors. So, how can we help reduce the presence of stress in our lives? Here are some of the ways I address stress, and set myself up to be better prepared to handle a migraine attack.
Now that many people work from home, there’s often a pressure to always be available or “on”. Setting work boundaries and adjusting your working environment by limiting screen time, using migraine glasses, scheduling in time to go outside for walks, may help reduce the severity and frequency of attacks.
If you’re required to work at an office, identify what might be causing issues. Is it stress or is it the other factors in the work environment?
If your desk is surrounded by fluorescent lighting, a nosy atmosphere, or coworkers with strong perfumes that can set off an episode, do what you can to make it a more hospitable environment.
If possible, ask to change the overhead lightbulbs or ask if you can use more subtle lighting, like a desk lamp, instead. Invest in some noise-canceling headphones and turn on your favorite work playlist or white noise audio.
If you do have an attack, make sure you ease your way back into your workload. The postdrome phase of migraine, sometimes called a “migraine hangover” can leave you feeling foggy for days after an attack. Be gentle with yourself and don’t be afraid to speak up if others are putting pressure on you to pick up the pace.
Learn how to become your own best advocate. If coworkers try to minimize your experience, saying migraine is “just a headache”, explain to them what actually happens during a migraine attack.
Don’t be afraid to set up boundaries and protect your time. Adding breaks into your day can not only help reduce stress but can help you avoid burnout. In the long run, this can actually allow you to work better. The same applies to social situations.
If missing out on a happy hour means you lose a friend, then they might not be a friend you want to keep around. Learning how to say “no” is a valuable skill that your body will thank you for.
Big events like graduation or weddings can also add stress to your life. Try to prepare as much as you can beforehand and create a plan to take care of yourself in case an attack happens. Remember to stay hydrated, step away when needed, and don’t feel guilty if you need to leave early.
As someone who experiences frequent migraine attacks that seem related to my stress levels, learning to read my body’s signs has become key.
Common signs of stress can include:
It’s important to find ways to reduce stress for your body as a whole. Cultivating habits like daily meditation and yoga can help ground you. When you’re in the midst of a stressful situation, using these tools to move through your emotions can keep stress at bay and may help boost your mood.
A recent study found that mindfulness practices improved quality of life, self-efficacy, pain catastrophizing, and depression. Mindfulness practices also helped patients learn new ways to process their pain, which could affect their long-term health.
Additionally, self-talk is an accessible way to manage your pain. I’ve found that simply observing my symptoms, then trying a mindful breathing exercise can sometimes distract me during an attack.
If you are having trouble getting a handle on your stress, your migraine attacks, or both, seeking a little extra help can make a big difference. Working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to identify tools to manage migraine has been seen to reduce the frequency of attacks.
If an attack feels inescapable, having all the tools you need close by is important. Create a travel migraine rescue kit filled with at-home remedies, medication, or anything else you might need. In my kit, I always pack Advil, a migraine roll-on aromatherapy stick, and a headache tincture that helps with symptoms.
Whether your migraine attacks are directly related to stress, taking time to learn how to best manage your stress levels can only have a positive effect on your overall well-being.
Medically reviewed on March 02, 2023
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