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Being stressed over migraine is a migraine trigger

I never used to think of stress as a migraine trigger for me, but I’ve discovered in the last few years that my migraine frequency does increase in times of extreme stress. Unsurprisingly, right now qualifies as highly stressful and migraine kicked my butt for weeks this spring.

I tried all my usual tactics—I made sure my sleep and diet were in good shape, stopped reading the news, made exercise a priority, and committed to lots of relaxation. Nothing made a dent in my attacks. They got so bad that I had to take a leave of absence from TheraSpecs and stopped my advocacy work. Still no change.

After three weeks of frustration, I had an epiphany—maybe the stress of the increased migraine attacks was itself triggering more migraine attacks. While I had pulled out all the self-care stops, I had continued to obsess over my triggers and be frustrated every time an attack landed me on the couch for the day.

So all I had to do was stop being stressed! Aiming for that goal is usually a recipe for increasing my stress levels, but this time I managed to let go. I decided to drop all the worry and, for some reason, it actually worked. By the next day, I started to feel better. Within two days, I could definitively say that my attacks we less frequent and less severe, plus I felt better between attacks than I had in months.

I asked psychologist Dawn Buse, PhD, for her thoughts on the stress of migraine as a migraine trigger. She pointed out that it’s impossible to tease out which came first, the chicken or the egg, and explained more about the relationship between stress and migraine. She said:

“The relationship between stress and migraine has many different forms which can change from person to person, and over time and life phases for an individual. Stressful events or periods can contribute to triggering an attack. This can occur during a period of high stress or after the stress level has reduced, which is called the “let-down” effect. Long periods of stress (such as a personally difficult time or the global pandemic) can be associated with increased frequency of attacks. And some stressors such as childhood maltreatment are associated with the onset of migraine disease. Conversely, stress is also a consequence of living with migraine. Migraine can have significant negative impact on all important aspects of life and negatively impact relationships, careers, finances, academics, family, friendships and fun, just to name a few areas-—which can be very stressful.”

Dr. Buse also gave some information on managing stress, which I’ll include in an upcoming Migraine.com article on this same topic. Most notably, she shared a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn that spoke to my recent experience: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” My attempt to stop the waves was not only ineffective, it made me feel like I was drowning. When I attempted to surf, my migraine attacks improved within a day.

I’ve been trying to surf for a couple weeks now and am doing well enough that I’ve spent this week on advocacy work and will head back to (remote work at) TheraSpecs next week. I’m nervous, but excited to get back to a life beyond my own health.

I’ve been thinking of you all and hope you’re doing as well as possible. Life is so weird right now.

hand reaching up through surf
Photo by Nikko Macaspac via Unsplash

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