Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological or environmental and – it is a fact of life. In fact, any major life event, be it positive (e.g. the birth of a child), or negative (e.g. getting laid off), is a source of stress simply because it comes with many changes. For some people, stress can be a positive motivator, but for many it is the root cause of many health problems. Migraine headaches are one of many conditions that are strongly linked to stressful, challenging experiences of any type. However you choose to respond to it, stress can not be ignored and if it’s exacerbating health issues like migraine headaches, you need to take steps to manage your stress level.
If you are prone to chronic migraine headaches, keeping a journal of what’s happening and how you’re feeling when a migraine occurs is very useful in determining if stress is a trigger for you. Recognize that intense feelings of anxiety, or elation, cause distinct changes in brain neurotransmitter levels, breathing, and blood pressure that can signal the start of a migraine. Acute stress, like suddenly needing to run to catch a bus, causes immediate but temporary changes to hormone levels and energy metabolism that you can easily recover from. However, chronic stress from constant sleep deprivation, lack of proper nutrition or physical or mental exertion without a break causes more permanent changes to cortisol, insulin and other hormone levels that affect brain chemistry. These neural and metabolic changes can be the source of your migraine pain.
The good news is that there many ways to abate a full-blown migraine attack by anticipating stressful situations and implementing strategies to stay calm and relaxed. You may even be able to lessen severity and duration of a migraine by using a few effective stress management techniques. The first step to reducing stress is to become hyper-aware of where it is coming from and what it is doing to your body. This is accomplished through mindfulness exercises like deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle contraction and relaxation. Mindfulness of what is stressing us – and how it changes our facial expression, breathing and posture – leads to biofeedback in which we can self-correct our elevated heart rate or shallow breathing by consciously telling our body to breathe deep and slow down. Though it seems counterproductive to slow down in times of stress, this technique can be extremely effective even for mild migraine headaches.