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?