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Expert Review: Stress and migraines

“My doctor says my migraines are caused by stress,” is something I have often heard from frustrated patients. Does stress cause migraines — yes and no. Stress is not the cause of having migraines. But if you’re susceptible to getting migraines, stress is very likely to be a trigger for you.

Stress is one of the most potent triggers for most medical problems and the most commonly listed trigger for migraine. At least two in every three adult migraine sufferers will note that stress is a consistent trigger for individual migraine attacks. A new study that will be published in the Journal of Headache and Pain next year will report that stress triggers migraines for three in every four children and adolescents with migraine. Heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, bowel disease, and other conditions all characteristically get worse when people are under stress. Back when I was first starting out as a doctor and insurance companies allowed you to keep people in the hospital for more than today’s quick turnarounds, I came to expect improvements in many of my neurological patients after a few days in the hospital — not because my treatments were so effective, but because we’d temporarily gotten rid of the daily stresses that had aggravated their conditions.

“That’s just a stress headache”

Just because stress may be a trigger doesn’t make your migraine less “real.” Older people with heart disease may have a heart attack when they’re under extreme stress. Nobody would say, “Oh, that was just a stress heart attack — that one doesn’t count!” The same with migraines. Whether it’s stress, hormonal imbalance, skipping a meal, or something else that triggered today’s attack — the attack is just as real regardless of what triggered it.

To see if stress may be an important trigger for you, complete the quiz below. Recognizing the role that stress might be playing in your attacks is an essential first step toward getting better control over your migraines.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Marcy Sirrub
    8 years ago

    Much like people use migraine to mean bad headache you’re using the word stress to mean anxiety. The questions should really be “Do at least half of your headaches occur during or after a stressful situation that makes you feel anxious or worried?” Cause stress isn’t the issue at all it is the anxiety and the physical and psychological changes that occur and are unchecked when a person suffers anxiety.

    When I feel anxiety, worry or panic – bingo migraine. When I feel pressured or stressed but not anxious, worried or panicked – nothing.

  • Patricia McNairy
    8 years ago

    mine seem to occur mostly the mornings after a stressful day..always start with the aura in my eyes….I take medication the minute I think it is coming on…my eyes clear up within 30 minutes most of the time,.. and then the headache starts…

  • Barbara Collins
    8 years ago

    Mine don’t occur during stress, it will be after I relax or let the stress go. On vacations, I’m worse than during my stressful work days.

  • Anita Boyd Tinnerello
    8 years ago

    Same here. End of the day or after a stressful situation. I always thought I was the only one!!

  • Michelle Alley
    8 years ago

    Older people with heart disease may have a heart attack when they’re under extreme stress. Nobody would say, “Oh, that was just a stress heart attack — that one doesn’t count!”.

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