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Stress is not my trigger and it doesn’t have to be yours either

My mother used to tell me, “Don’t let yourself get so stressed out. You’ll give yourself a migraine.”

In her defense, our family doctor told her that stress caused migraines. Plus, she was trying to describe my stress behaviors, not my frame of mind. Those behaviors were (and still are) migraine triggers. She knew me well enough to recognize the things I did when I was feeling stressed. Her mistake was in believing that my feelings caused behaviors of which I was unaware and could not control.

Well guess what? I did learn to recognize my personal stress behavior patterns. Once I discovered which ones were most likely to trigger migraine attacks, I had a choice. I was no longer the helpless victim of random circumstance. I could choose to change my behavior. Now some of those behaviors had a lot of intense emotion tied to them. Some were just really stubborn bad habits. They didn’t change easily. I had some work to do in CBT therapy first. It wasn’t my thoughts or feelings that triggered my migraine attacks. It was the behavior. Once I understood my automatic thoughts and feelings, I could challenge the lies that built them and make room for new behaviors that met my emotional needs without unwittingly triggering a migraine attack.

The toughest part was letting go of the romantic notion that I was a helpless victim of random migraine attacks. Let’s be honest. It’s much easier to blame it all on the faceless phantom of stress than it is to face the truth that we might actually be contributing to the problem.

I stopped blaming stress when I discovered that during times of stress, I self-sabotage by

  • Skipping meals
  • Letting myself get dehydrated
  • Staying up too late or pull all-nighters
  • Getting careless about checking for food triggers
  • Skipping doses of daily medicines and supplements
  • Hyper-focusing on the goal, ignoring potential triggers I could avoid
  • Ignoring the early warning signs and waiting too long to start treatment

Every one of those behaviors is a migraine trigger. Doing them all in the same weekend is just asking to wake up Monday morning with a raging fire in my head. No treatment was ever going to negate all those triggers stacked up so high. If I was going to get better, I was going to have to make some changes.

Sure, the studies all say that migraineurs are more vulnerable to the negative effects of stress. The studies say that just having migraine is stressful and that the negative impact on our lives is stressful. All of that is true. It’s also true that we can do something about it.

I can already hear the protests…

  • Every holiday I get a migraine.
  • Every time my mother-in-law is in town, I get a migraine.
  • No matter how much I relax, I still get a migraine when I feel stressed out.

Okay, I hear you. Those used to be all true for me, too. They are not true anymore.

“…but your treatment is working!”

Yes, it is. Yet I eliminated all my stress behavior triggers years ago, long before I started my current treatment. I had to make a conscious choice to reduce my trigger load during times of predictable stress. That meant I gave up some things (like playing Spades until 3:00 a.m. every night of Christmas break or eating a bowl of sour cream & chives potato chips for lunch) so that I could fully participate in the activities that really mattered. I paid for a store-bought cake so that I could watch my children enjoy their birthday parties. I drank water and snacked on raw veggies all day on July 4th so I could watch the fireworks without pain. I stopped trying to be everything to everyone and worked on being the healthiest me I could be. I realized that my presence was more important than anything I could make or do. I decided that I didn’t have room in my life for people who didn’t understand and support that choice.

Avoiding those triggering stress behaviors takes work. You can’t coast through a stressful time and expect to come out migraine-free on the other side. Feeling stressed out can cause us to take our focus off of staying healthy. It happens even before you feel the effects of stress. So you must plan ahead. By knowing what you will do and practicing those behaviors often, you can start chipping away at the migraine stranglehold stress has on your life.

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.


  • Edomal
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your successes. I learned a while back that I can’t skip meals and I always keep snacks of some type with me. I always have a bottle of water with me, too. I’ve struggled to find food triggers, and I have friends who have tried to get me to try foods again because maybe now they won’t bother me. Well, bananas always result in a migraine, even if they are cooked, i.e. Banana bread. I still have trouble with sleeping. My husband has bile duct cancer and we spend a lot of time in ERs for him with high fevers. I seem to do well while there and until he is discharged (every fever usually means a 4-7 day hospital stay 45 minutes away from home). But once he’s home and feeling settled into the routine of IV antibiotics every 8 hours, I usually end up with a migraine that can last up to 4 days. I have yet to figure out how to avoid one after these hospital stays. My migraines are accompanied by vertigo. My headache specialist, isn’t worried about them and thinks I would be doing really well if not for my husbands illness.
    Any suggestions would be very appreciated.

  • Tammy Rome author
    4 years ago

    If I were in your situation, I’d start by looking at what behaviors are different during his hospital stay. Do you stay in the hospital with him? If so, it could be something as simple as imperceptible changes in sleep quality because you are sleeping in the hospital. If you drive back and forth, it could be the added activity of driving or even changes in the way you eat. Looking at what’s different should give you some clues. You may talk to your doctor about using daily NSAIDs or triptans during his hospital stays to keep the migraine attacks at bay.

  • rebecca
    4 years ago

    I don’t go to the movies anymore because it almost always triggers a migraine. I go to concerts sometimes but I generally need a dose of my rescue meds during them, which means I need someone else to drive me. I don’t drink alcohol because red wine gives me migraines and I’m on enough other meds it’s just not a good idea.

    I rarely see my friends because I use up most of my spoons getting through the work week so by the weekend I’m exhausted and in attack phase. I try to host social gatherings at our house once in a while so I can see people but still go upstairs to lie down if I need to.

    (I haven’t seen fireworks in years because strobe lights are my biggest trigger without fail and it’s just not worth it.)

    And I still get migraines 2-3x a week and end up in the ER every 6-8 weeks when I can’t kill them. But I’m trying.

  • Tammy Rome author
    4 years ago

    So glad to hear you are still trying! It can take a very long time to get migraines under control. It’s so difficult to unravel all the possible triggers and underlying problems that contribute to frequent attacks. If you ever get discouraged, frustrated, or lonely — please pop on here and reach out to one of our community members or advocates. You are not alone.

    {{hugs}} ~ Tammy

  • amandadeejohnson
    4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing. I will take this advice.

  • Tammy Rome author
    4 years ago

    Let me know how it all turns out for you. It took me several years to figure out how to eliminate all my “stress” triggers.

    ~ Tammy

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