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 Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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