Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020 | Last updated: May 2023
Some people use the term stress migraine, but this is not a type of migraine recognized by the International Headache Society. It does describe what causes migraine in many people, namely stress. Stress migraine can happen with aura or without.1
Is stress a common trigger?
Between 50 and 80 percent of people with migraine say stress is 1 of their main triggers. Constant stress can also make someone with migraine more likely to develop chronic migraine.2
Stress is the body’s reaction to an event or situation. Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye coined the word “stress” in 1936 and pioneered research into the body’s reactions to stress. He called stress “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”3
What causes stress migraine?
The stress that causes migraine can be good stress or bad stress. Good stress may be not getting enough rest during a busy holiday season or forgetting to eat because you are out having fun with friends. Examples of bad stress can be feeling depressed or anxious about a situation at work, death of a loved one, or divorce. In these cases, stress triggers a migraine.
To make matters worse, migraine pain causes stress, which creates a hard-to-beat cycle. Some people even have what are called “let down” migraine. This happens when the body is used to constant stress and then relaxation triggers a migraine.1
It can be hard for a person with migraine to control the stress in their life, just as it is for people who do not have migraine. Different things cause stress in different people, and each person reacts in their own way to stress.
Diagnosing stress migraine
Migraine is diagnosed using the person’s description of their symptoms. This is why keeping a migraine diary can be so helpful in finding treatments and understanding your own triggers. The International Headache Society says that to be diagnosed with migraine without aura the person should have 5 or more attacks per month that include nausea, sensitivity to light, along with throbbing head pain on 1 side of the head.1-4
Treating stress migraine
Stress migraine can be treated with a combination of medicine and lifestyle changes. The treatments include:4
- Preventive drugs that help reduce how often you have migraines and how severe the attacks are
- Acute drugs taken at the beginning of an attack to try and reduce its severity
- Complementary treatments to reduce stress, such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy
- Learning your triggers and avoiding the ones your can, such as certain foods and drinks, not eating, or not getting enough sleep
- Taking care of other health conditions that can trigger migraines or make them worse, such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, sleep apnea, or obesity
Ways to reduce stress
One of the best ways to reduce the chances of developing a stress migraine is to learn what stresses you and make changes to your lifestyle. Some common examples of stress reducers that help other people with migraine include:1
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals on a regular schedule
- Exercise regularly
- Reduce caffeine and alcohol if these get in the way of good sleep
- Use cognitive behavioral therapy to help recognize and deal with things that cause stress, and change your reaction to stress
- Learn to say no to avoid over-scheduling yourself or putting yourself into stressful situations
- Make time for relationships you enjoy