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 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

4 thoughts on “Being stressed over migraine is a migraine trigger”

  1. Great blog post. Could you share more about how you’re learning to surf or what that means to you in terms of practice? Before Covid, I was doing better than I had in a long, long time. I was actually beginning to ask myself what a life without migraine front and center would mean for me. Since Covid hit, I’ve been struggling, and now that I don’t have the SpringTMS, that struggle has intensified.
    I can really relate to the surfing analogy since salt water swimming in the summer is huge for me, a real balm, a resource I depend on but here in Washington State the weather is already cooling down, and I need to learn to surf in the winter too! Thanks!

    1. Hi Candy, I’m so sorry you’ve taken a turn for the worse and now don’t have the SpringTMS. It is so hard to have that sense of almost normalcy yanked away from you. I’d say the biggest help for me was a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who the surfing quote is from, is the creator of MBSR. It’s an 8-week course that has a good track recording for helping manage chronic health conditions. There are online options (some free) and the book You Are Not Your Pain (which I wrote up in a series of posts that you can get to here: is a great resources for self-guided MBSR.

      In April, I did a RetreatMigraine session on quick, practical tips for self-care. It was a great reminder for me to see all the small ways one can do self-care. Here’s the link if you’d like to watch:

      I don’t know if this is an option for you, but therapy has been invaluable in helping me learn specific coping tools for the varied grief related to living with migraine. And it helps keep me grounded when the grief swells up after being dormant for a while.

      Best wishes to you, Candy. I hope you’re able to find some relief from the migraine attacks and the emotional weight of it all. Thanks for your question. I’m not coping well right now myself, so it was good too have a reminder of what’s been helpful over the years.

      Take care,

  2. stress /Panic Attact very very common with Migraines . I GET THEM VERY VERY BADLY
    i have tryed all sorts of tablets/medicine NOTHING HELPS .few times made the migraines ]
    lot lot WORSE ..i take part in a lot lot research .have long list health issues ,.m.e .ibs list
    goes on
    my blog.http;//

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