Skip to Accessibility Tools Skip to Content Skip to Footer
Stress as a Trigger?

Stress as a Trigger?

Often when I talk about my migraines, the subject of stress comes up. This doesn’t surprise me, as the connection between stress and migraines is often discussed. This article talks about how more than half of people affected by migraine list stress as a trigger.

When I became chronic I was in my second and final year at an intensive grad school program for fine arts. I was working on my thesis project feeling very inspired and motivated. You could consider my excitement a form of positive emotional stress. This stress fueled me to spend long days working in my studio. Once winter break started I was hit with the most painful migraine of my life, which led to my chronic daily pattern. This is a classic form of a “letdown migraine”, a migraine that comes after the stressful event has subsided. A common example of this is someone who has migraines on the weekends.  But if I examine my migraines in relation to stress more closely, I can see how the connection isn’t always so direct. In fact, most of the time it appears indirect.

For example, when I am feeling a lot of stress I will focus on the task at hand. This means I’ll spend less time on exercising and getting enough sleep (for me enough sleep is a solid 8-9 hours every day) as I throw myself into my work. Exercise and sleep are two things that help protect me from getting an attack. So the secondary effects of stress will cause me to become more vulnerable to getting a migraine attack. Those flickering florescent lights that may not have bothered me on a day I had gotten enough sleep and exercised will now more likely send me into a vicious migraine cycle.

Another secondary effect of stress for me is muscle tension. When I am concentrating or working hard I often tense my neck muscles. A stiff neck is one of my triggers, and I am combating this constantly with stretches and yoga. I have tried both chiropractic care and physical therapy with some success. In addition to a stiff neck I can grind my teeth at night, and a stiff jaw is also a stress-driven trigger of mine.

One more example from my grad school days was my eating habits as a result of a busy schedule. I spent less time cooking and more often grabbed food on the run. I tried to eat healthy, but I couldn’t always know the ingredients of the food. I’m sure aspartame and MSG (two of my triggers) were present more often than I would have liked. Again, the image of a hectic stressful life leading to headache may not be directly from stress at all, but from habits that result from stress.

Because I have found the correlation between stress and migraine to be less than direct for myself, I wonder if others who rate it as a trigger may possibly be overlooking other factors. I would definitely not discount it as a valid trigger, but I would encourage anyone to investigate more deeply their own stress/migraine connection. What have you found to be the connection between your migraines and your stress levels?

To keep track of your stress and other triggers in relation to your migraines, you can use our migraine journal in the tools section.

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.

Comments

  • Bulldog
    2 years ago

    I’ve had migraines for 30 years now. Mainly on holidays, weekends or after stressful events occur. (For example, I will start one while walking onto the gangway of the cruise ship and have to stop and take a triptan). I average 10 per month. 95% start while in bed, early in the morning. The let-down trigger is significant for me but I don’t know how to reduce it.

    Has any preventative medication helped with controlling stress peaks and valleys? Is the problem cortisol issues? What would cause migraines to commence during the early mornings?

    Any suggestions are appreciated.

  • Kayakerjo
    3 years ago

    I like the term ‘indirect trigger’. This is exactly what stress is for me. One of the big things for me is that I don’t sleep as well when stressed. Even if I get to bed on time, I’m much more likely to have disturbed sleep when stressed. And all of the other factors you mentioned are true for me as well.
    I meditate at lunch at the office to reduce my work stress. It definitely helps!

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator author
    3 years ago

    Thanks for your comment Kayakerjo! I feel the same way! In fact, though I wrote this article a few years ago, it happened to me last week where stress led to not sleeping and then a migraine. Meditation helped me through most of a very stressful week, however. Hope you’re migraine free or migraine light today!
    Lisa

  • LFN5
    3 years ago

    This makes total sense to me. I am still figuring out my triggers but from looking through the journal entries I have, I often get migraine after a period of stress, with high adrenaline and poor self care habits. I have made myself a Try to Do List to prevent this: includes eating food and drinking water consistently when on duty (RN), taking moments to breath and focus and ground myself before and during work, stretching or exercising when home, rather than eating badly and having a drink to relax. Problem is, when I am tired it is hard to remember to do these things. Have to figure a cueing method.

  • DonnaFA moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi LFN5! Thanks for joining the conversation. When I am having problems remembering, or making self-care things important, I set an alarm on my phone – because it’s always with me. It kind of pushes me into actually having something to eat or take a little break. -All Best, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • Gretchen Buckalew
    5 years ago

    I’m the oddball – stress is definitely one of my triggers because I internalize it. My husband has a TBI (traumatic brain injury) and he verbalizes all of his emotions – a lot of times because he can’t help it because of his injury. So I’ve learned that I have to be the grounding rod in the relationship. So when things start piling up on me I tend to let it build and inturn, it ends up hurting me.

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator author
    5 years ago

    Hi Gretchen,

    You are certainly not an oddball. Having to exercise consistent emotional control with a family member on a constant basis is a stressor that I think would trigger many people susceptible to stress-triggered migraines. I would encourage you to seek a support system to help you cope and perhaps let out your emotion. That could be a good friend, a therapist, or even a hobby like journaling. Take care!

    Lisa

  • TNmigGal
    5 years ago

    I have seen some articles say stress is a trigger and other say no. In the ones that say it isn’t, it is described as, “Just as stress doesn’t cause the common cold, it does make one’s body more susceptible to it.” This may be another way to say it is an indirect trigger. This might help others explain it to their loved ones / caregivers if they are trying to get them to understand how stress affects their migraines.

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator author
    5 years ago

    Yes I have read the same thing, TN, and it can be quite confusing what the consensus is. I’m glad you find this article helpful.
    Lisa

  • Marsha
    5 years ago

    Thanks for this post; this is an issue I think about frequently. I’ve concluded that, for me, stress almost exclusively is an indirect trigger. Like you, stress (typically, due to work deadlines) means that I don’t sleep, exercise, hydrate, or eat in optimal ways. With deadlines or work demands looming, I end up sitting a lot, which leads to muscle tension in my shoulders, neck. I don’t let off steam and relax, which leads to an overall physical tension that is a trigger for me. I sleep irregularly. I don’t hydrate as I should, and I end up getting dehydrated, by far my clearest trigger. I am an expert at handling stress from an emotional standpoint (I lead an active and demanding life); it’s the secondary physical effects that are a trigger for me and that require constant vigilance.

  • Lisa Robin Benson moderator author
    5 years ago

    Marsha, I couldn’t agree more! Very well stated and you seem to have a good amount of self-awareness. I find exercise or doing activities where I can just “breath” and let down my guard (like taking a bubble bath) really helpful and I often schedule them in to my daily routine so I am not neglecting myself. It’s a constant battle though to make sure I am making time for myself!
    Lisa

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    I too find that stress alone rarely triggers a migraine, but can lead indirectly to one. Also, stress will make an existing migraine worse.

  • Poll