Clenched jaws, tight fists, nervous stomach: these are all signs of stress or worry. Over time, these signs can lead to muscle aches and pains, but did you know that once the stress has passed migraine sufferers are at an increased risk of migraine due to stress let-down?

Researchers have long known that stress is a migraine trigger, but a new study at the Montefiore Headache Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University found that the period of relaxation after heightened stress may be an even more powerful trigger. They analyzed over 2,000 daily electronic diary entries over a three-month period. The 17 participants in the study documented 110 migraines, and the study looked at levels of stress surrounding each event.

Lead author Richard B. Lipton, M.D., director, Montefiore Headache Center, professor and vice chair of neurology, and the Edwin S. Lowe Chair in neurology at Einstein was surprised by the results.

“This study demonstrates a striking association between reduction in perceived stress and the occurrence of migraine headaches. Results were strongest during the first six hours where decline in stress was associated with a nearly five-fold increased risk of migraine onset. The hormone cortisol, which rises during times of stress and reduces pain, may contribute to the triggering of headache during periods of relaxation.”

Researchers hypothesize that this increased risk of head pain following stress reduction may be due to the rise and fall of cortisol, the “stress hormone” that governs the “fight or flight” response. A person in stress experiences a sharp increase in cortisol production that continues for as long as the stress is present. Once stress is resolved or removed, cortisol levels drop back quickly to normal levels.

While the study doesn’t pinpoint exactly how these cortisol levels trigger head pain, it does highlight the importance of maintaining balance and relaxation for migraine sufferers. Dawn C. Buse, Ph.D., director, behavioral medicine, Montefiore Headache Center, associate professor, clinical neurology, Einstein, and study co-author had this to say about the importance of monitoring and managing stress levels:

“It is important for people to be aware of rising stress levels and attempt to relax during periods of stress rather than allowing a major build up to occur. This could include exercising or attending a yoga class or may be as simple as taking a walk or focusing on one’s breath for a few minutes.”

Here are five simple ways that head pain sufferers can help relieve stress as it is building.

1. Be mindful

Research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation is growing, and one of the most powerful results of mindfully meditating is easy stress relief that you can tap into whenever you need it. Lead study author Dr. Rebecca Erwin Wells from Wake Forest Baptist University in Winston-Salem, South Carolina found that just focusing on the breath helped moderate stress levels, which can lead to fewer, shorter migraines both before and after the stressful event. She noted:

“Those in our study who took a two-hour instructive class in mindful meditation for eight weeks and meditated on their own five days a week for 35 to 40 minutes experienced migraines that were less severe and shorter.”

Steps to mindfully meditate could not be easier: sit comfortably, focus on your breathing, and when your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.

2. Reach out and tweet someone

In a social media experiment, Alexandre DaSilva and other University of Michigan researchers analyzed 21,741 tweets regarding migraines and migraine head pain. While they found that much of what was tweeted may not be useful for real-time migraine suffering, there is some indication that just getting the feelings out may offer a way to relieve the stress and head pain before, during, and after migraine. Says DaSilva:

“Neuroimaging studies have suggested that emotional and cognitive areas in the brain can modulate, in part, activity related to the perception of physical pain. Social media may provide relief for [people with migraine] that goes beyond the emotional.”

It is clear that social support does help to ease stress, so take some time to connect with friends and family on a regular basis, either online or in real life.

3. Work it out

Not only does working out make you look good, more importantly, it makes you feel good. Vigorous physical activity releases the “feel-good” hormone serotonin in the brain, producing a general feeling of well-being that lasts well after the workout. You can access this stress-busting benefit regardless of your current level of fitness. Talk to your doctor, then start a simple program of fitness that includes low-impact exercise like walking, swimming, or biking. Begin slowly, then gradually add time and intensity, working towards a goal of 150 minutes of moderate weekly activity. You can figure out what “moderate” means to you with the talk test: your exercise should allow you to carry on a conversation but not to sing. If you are belting out show tunes while walking, walk faster!

Bonus tip: increase activity level by making small changes to your day. Do squats while you brush your teeth, take the stairs instead of the elevator, and park far away from the door. These small bursts of activity add up to better health and less stress.

4. Get rested

A good night’s sleep can be life-changing, and head pain can prevent that from happening. Bust stress by cleaning up your nightly routine to ensure a restful, complete night of sleep.

  • Clean up the clutter on the bedside table
  • Reserve the bedroom for sleep and intimacy – no working!
  • Go to bed at the same time every night
  • Turn off screens two hours before bed (phones included)
  • Keep your bedroom cool enough to allow heavy blankets
  • Sip chamomile tea or warm milk before bed
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day to establish a rhythm for your body

Sleep deprivation decreases our ability to deal with stress and wreaks havoc on all other aspects of life. Make a good night’s sleep a priority.

5. Get some help

If you find yourself consumed by anxiety or worry, or you are unable to relieve stress on your own through diet, exercise, and mediation, talk to your doctor about alternatives, including cognitive behavioral therapy or another type of counseling. If there have been changes in your life that you are having difficulty coping with, or if you are grieving a loss in your life that is affecting your ability to function on a daily basis, talking to a counselor can help. Sometimes the easy solution is just taking an hour a week to focus on what is going on with you instead of worrying about work, kids, or partners. Stress is cumulative and much harder to deal with as the pressure rises. Think of a volcano as the intensity builds and then explodes. If just a little steam can be let off with a counselor, that’s a great option.

What proven stress relievers do you utilize to ward off head pain and migraine?

Image by Maryland GovPics via Flickr


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!