According to the Migraine Institute, 35 million Americans suffer from migraines, and it is the third most prevalent illness in the world. Migraine headaches are extremely painful and can involve symptoms such as nausea, throbbing, muscle aches and extreme sensitivity to light. When you have a migraine, specific nerves in your blood vessels send pain signals to your brain, causing the release of inflammatory substances into the nerves and blood vessels in your head — which causes the pain and discomfort you feel. While migraine headaches are complicated and no one is 100% sure what causes them, we do know that migraines often have specific triggers — like stress — which can fortunately be addressed and alleviated. So, how do you prevent migraines from stress?
What is a migraine?
According to the Mayo Clinic, “a migraine is a headache that can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on one side of the head. It’s often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.”
Migraines often pass through four phases, including prodrome, aura, attack, and post-drome — although not everyone experiences all four phases.
- Prodrome: This phase starts a few days before the actual migraine and can include symptoms such as constipation, mood changes, food cravings and neck stiffness.
- Aura: This phase could occur before or during a migraine, but includes a variety of frightening symptoms such as seeing bright spots or light flashes, losing vision, feeling pins and needles, or difficulty speaking.
- Attack: During this phase, you are likely to feel extreme, throbbing, pulsing pain on one or both sides of your head — as well as sensitivity to light, sound and other stimuli. You may also feel nauseated and vomit.
- Post-drome: After a migraine, you may feel tired and confused.
What triggers migraines, and how to prevent them
While migraines are very painful and some symptoms of migraine are quite scary, fortunately migraines are generally triggered by certain factors that, for the most part, can be mitigated. Some of the most commonly-cited migraine triggers, and how they can be better addressed, include:
- Sleep deprivation: Nearly half of all migraine attacks occur between 4am and 9am, putting people at a greater risk for developing a sleep disorder. To avoid this, aim to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and if you have trouble sleeping, you can consider talking with your doctor about ways to improve your sleep.
- Weather changes: Storms, excessive heat and changes in barometric pressure have all been reported to trigger migraines. Keep an eye out on the weather forecast, and if a very hot day is in the near future, plan to stay inside or get all of your outside activities done early in the morning or later at night, when it’s cooler.
- Light: Light is also a common migraine trigger, and we’ve already discussed how light sensitivity is a common migraine symptom. If light is a particular problem for you, make sure you wear sunglasses whenever you’re outside, and avoid flickering light and glare when you’re indoors. You can also look for green light-emitting bulbs or sunglasses that filter out all light but green light, as green light is the only light that doesn’t trigger migraines.
- Dehydration: Very hot days can also lead to dehydration, which can independently trigger migraines. Make sure you’re drinking enough water (soda doesn’t count!) every day. Tracking how much water you drink each day is an easy way to make sure you’re getting enough, as most of us underestimate how much we drink.
- Diet: Several foods can cause migraines. Usually, the culprits are foods that contain histamine and MSG, chocolate, cheese and other dairy products, artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame), caffein, and cured meats — but everyone is different. As with hydration, the best thing to do is to figure out which foods might trigger your migraines by tracking what you eat, together with any migraine symptoms. A tracking diary will help you quickly identify any foods that trigger migraines so you can avoid those foods in the future.
- Hormonal changes: Hormones may also play a role in migraines, with women being three times more likely to have migraines than men. Talk to your doctor if you think your migraines might be linked to your menstrual cycle.
- Odors: Foods with strong smells can also trigger migraines. This is because some odors — such as strong-smelling foods — may activate nerve receptors in the nasal passages that can trigger a migraine attack or make an existing attack worse. Osmophobia (aversion to odors) is a common migraine symptom. In addition to avoiding foods with strong odors, take care to avoid other strong smells such as gasoline and other chemicals.
- Alcohol consumption: While red wine is believed to be the main trigger of alcohol-induced migraines, any alcoholic beverage can open the door for a migraine. If you suffer from migraines, it’s best to keep alcohol to a minimum.
- Medication overuse: You should always take the medication prescribed by your doctor, but do so with care and ensure you’re following the exact dosage instructions. In some cases, migraines can be triggered by medication overuse — taking acute prescription medication more than 10 days per month. (See our section, below, on migraine medications.)
- Stress and emotional changes: A significant migraine trigger, stress can be better managed; see our next section.
How to prevent stress migraines: Migraine stress management
Mindfulness practices have demonstrated efficacy in relieving stress migraines:
- One study showed that mindfulness training was as effective as prophylactic medications in reducing migraine frequency by almost 50%
- Similarly, another study reported that mindfulness-based stress reduction significantly reduced migraine days and headache-related disability.
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction also significantly decreased pain intensity and improved quality of life in chronic migraine patients.
Learn about other stress-reduction techniques that you can incorporate into your daily life in order to help with stress migraine prevention and migraine symptom relief.
Can Stress Cause Illness?
What Is Oxidative Stress?
Other non-pharmacological ways to deal with migraines
- Resting in a dark and cool room
- Applying a cold pack or a cool, damp cloth to your forehead or behind the neck
- Massaging the scalp and temples
- Doing yoga
Managing stress migraine symptoms with medications
Two types of medications — abortive and preventive — comprise the most commonly prescribed pharmacological therapies for migraine sufferers. Note: This is not a medical manual, so talk to your healthcare provider before assuming that any of these medications are right for you.
- Abortive medications are taken when you first feel the onset of a migraine, before the pain gets severe. These medications are supposed to interrupt the migraine process before it exacerbates to a severe level and can reduce pain, nausea and light sensitivity. Abortive medications include common over-the-counter pain relief medications.
- Preventive medications, also known as prophylactic medications, are taken regularly to reduce migraine frequency and severity. Examples of preventive migraine medications include:
- Calcium channel blockers
- Beta blockers
- Anti-seizure medications
- Other medications including steroids, phenothiazines, and corticosteroids
Newer migraine medications and therapies include:
- CGRP monoclonal antibodies, the first treatment developed specifically for migraines (all other medications given to help with migraines were developed for other conditions, such as depression or seizures, and also happen to help with migraines), are a relatively new treatment and their long-term effects remain unknown. And they are not for everyone. Your doctor is the best person who can determine whether you should try them or not.
- Transcutaneous supraorbital nerve stimulation devices: These battery-powered electrical stimulator devices are approved by the FDA to prevent migraines. Worn like a headband or on your arm, the device emits electrical charges that stimulate the nerve responsible for sending pain signals during a migraine. Similar to CGRP monoclonal antibodies, this device is not for everyone, and not all insurance companies cover it. Your doctor is the best person who can determine whether you should try this device or not.
Physicians may also recommend certain supplements to help alleviate migraines, such as magnesium and Co-enzyme Q10.
So, how do you prevent migraines from stress? Migraines are a serious problem; they affect millions of people worldwide with debilitating symptoms. Although scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes migraines, we do know that several things can trigger them, including getting migraines from stress. Fortunately, there are some simple lifestyle habits that can help you reduce stress and recognize and avoid other common triggers. You can start implementing some of these tips today, and if you still can’t get your migraines under control, talk with your doctor.