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When the Stress of Migraine Is a Migraine Trigger

Normal stress isn’t a migraine trigger for me, but extreme stress is. Given how 2020 is shaping up so far, my migraine attacks have increased in both frequency and severity. It got so bad this spring that I took a leave from work to try to manage them. I told everyone at the office that I expected to be back soon because work itself wasn’t stressful, but the stress of not being able to work productively was. (This should have been a clue, but I was oblivious at the time!)

Pulling out all the migraine self-care stops

I pulled out all the self-care stops, putting my preventive, acute, and rescue self-care methods in place simultaneously. I limited my exposure to news, made sure my diet and sleep were in order, and prioritized exercise and relaxation. At the same time, I also tried to go easy on myself, allowing myself to eat healthy food that felt indulgent (like salads with candied spiced pecans and gouda or smoothies of pineapple and coconut milk) and downloaded a couple of new games to my phone so I could have fun while lying around during an attack.

Taking care of myself but migraine still attacks

Despite all these changes, the attacks continued with no rhyme or reason and my trigger sleuthing kicked into overdrive. I wanted to know the “why” behind each attack so I could try to eliminate it in the future. I worked even harder to figure out the triggers and try to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. I was no longer able to “just be” during an attack, I was hyped up, obsessing over when it would end. And yet I was no closer to having a handle on the situation.

The stress over migraine attacks was triggering attacks

Three weeks into this spiral of migraine stress, it dawned on me that my stress over the migraine attacks had itself become a trigger. I’d managed the outside stress remarkably well, but the stress that I was putting on myself (over migraine, no less) was actually the stressor that was triggering the attacks.

The impossible task of not being stressed about migraine

With this revelation, I decided the only thing I could do was to try to not stress about the migraine attacks. The most effective way to increase my stress is for someone to tell me to not stress about something. And yet that’s what I was telling myself! I girded myself to take on the nearly impossible task of not being stressed about migraine.

How I managed my migraine stress

I stopped looking for triggers. I stopped wondering when each attack would end and tried to accept each one as it came, knowing it would end eventually. I stopped thinking about all the things I wasn’t getting done. I gave myself permission to back off my exercise regimen. I committed to meditating every day with guided meditations from Jack Kornfield. I took deep belly breaths every time I realized I was getting caught up in frustration over my attacks.

Guess what? It’s working (so far, at least). I began to feel better between attacks than I did for several months. And the attacks I’ve had have been less debilitating and less painful than they were.

An expert weighs in on stress and migraine

As I wrote this article, I wondered whether there was research on the idea that the stress of migraine itself is a migraine trigger. Stress as a migraine trigger has been studied a lot and it’s well-known that migraine is stressful, so I asked psychologist Dawn Buse, PhD, for her thoughts on the topic. She said:

“Stress and migraine are intimately related. Understanding their relationship is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Whether it is the chicken or the egg, sometimes stressful events are not possible to avoid in life, so we need to focus our efforts on how we respond to them. It is not the stress itself, but what it means to us and our emotional and cognitive interpretation that determines the impact on our bodies and our wellbeing. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, ‘You can’t stop the waves from coming, but you can learn how to surf.’ And we should honor and be gentle with ourselves knowing that living with migraine is hard we are all doing our best.”

Trying to surf

I spent weeks trying to stop the waves and only succeeded in feeling like I was drowning. When I finally thought to stand up on my surfboard with shaky legs and try to surf, my migraine attacks began to settle down. I’m still having more migraine attacks than usual and am more susceptible to triggers, but I feel so much better overall when I’m trying to surf rather than attempting to stop the waves.

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