The Link Between Stress and Migraines

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This article will explore who is most vulnerable to migraines, what causes migraines, the link between stress and migraines, warning signs to be aware of, and how to manage symptoms if you deal with stress and migraines.

Who Is Most Vulnerable to Getting Migraines?

Some factors make you more vulnerable to getting the painful throbbing headaches on one side of your head commonly called migraines. These risk factors include:

  • Genetic connection: If one or both of your parents suffer from migraines, there’s a 50-75% chance you will get migraines too says The American Migraine Foundation.
  • Gender: Migraine headaches are more common in women than men, especially for women between the ages of 15 and 55. Yet, men still get migraines and consider stress to be the primary trigger.
  • High stress level: You may suffer from migraines more often if you’re highly-stressed.

What Causes Migraines?

There is no definitive answer to what causes migraines, and scientists are still studying the causes. However, conditions that commonly give rise to migraines include:

  • Lack of or too much sleep
  • Skipped meals, low blood sugar or dehydration
  • Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odors
  • Hormone changes during the menstrual cycle
  • Barometric pressure and weather changes
  • Alcohol (often red wine)
  • Caffeine
  • Additives, certain foods and drinks
  • Genetics
  • Stress and anxiety

What Is the Link Between Stress and Migraines?

There has been strong evidence that stress and migraines are linked. One paper reviewed evidence that favored a relationship between stress and migraine and found that studies showed that 50 to 80% of patients reported stress as a precipitating factor for their migraine headaches. Researchers suggested that acute stress created a biological reaction that lowered the threshold of susceptibility to a migraine attack.

Research published in The Journal of Headache and Pain found there is undoubtedly a relationship between the effects of stress and migraine. Because the causes of migraines and their triggers are complex, scientists are still studying their relationship.

The study’s authors concluded that focusing on how stress patterns unfold in each migraine patient could help clinicians determine why some patients then get chronic migraines, how stress contributes as a risk factor for attacks and/or increases migraine symptoms, and which are the best therapeutic options for those affected. Researchers posited that characterizing individual patterns of stress and migraine will expedite our understanding of the relationship between stress, migraine and effective therapeutic options.

How Stress Triggers Migraine Symptoms

While our bodies and minds can handle everyday stress, chronic stress, or stress that’s pervasive like the kind that comes from working in a job with an abusive boss, can adversely impact our mental health. Chronic stress has been associated with a number of medical conditions including hypertension, autoimmune diseases, sleep disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and chronic headaches.

What Are the Warning Signs of Stress and Anxiety?

It’s helpful to look for the warning signs to determine if you’re stressed or anxious to help prevent the onset of migraines. Stress and anxiety are both emotional responses, but usually stress is caused by an external trigger and can be short-term or long term. When the situation is resolved, stress disappears. Anxiety is caused by your internal reaction and is persistent. Even when the original stressor is gone, your worry remains.

Symptoms of anxiety include having excessive fear or worry about a future threat. You might have muscle tension, dry mouth, panic attacks and irregular heart-beat. You’re filled with apprehension and are anticipating problems. 

Warning signs that you need to look at your stress level include sudden crying spells, fidgeting, and angry outbursts. Physical symptoms to look for if you’re overstressed include:

  • Digestive issues
  • Upset stomach
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Racing thoughts
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Jaw clenching
  • Panic attacks
  • More frequent illnesses
  • Lowered immunity

Stress can be a primary cause of migraines or indirectly act as a trigger. For example, the stress of being in a terrible marriage can trigger you to make behavioral changes: you drink more wine, sleep less and eat more junk food with chemical ingredients. That, in turn, sets you up to be more susceptible to having migraines.

Look into stress management plans, which usually incorporate stress relievers to improve both your physical and psychological health.

How to Manage Stress and Migraines

You can’t always control weather-related and hormone-related migraines, but you can likely reduce the possibility of migraines that are brought on by stress through lifestyle changes.

Relaxation Therapies

When you turn off your body’s stress response, you can lower your level of stress.  This can help reduce the incidence and severity of your migraines. Some approaches that are highly recommended include:

Mindfulness can be very helpful in the treatment of migraines. According to a study on MBSR, when compared to patients who only had headache education, those who had mindfulness-based stress reduction treatments significantly improved their level of disability, quality of life, self-efficacy, pain catastrophizing, and depression up to 36 weeks. Participants also had decreased pain suggesting a potential shift in how they’ve altered their appraisal of pain.

What Are Other Migraine Treatments?

As of now there is no cure for migraines, but don’t give up on finding ways to mitigate the occurrence of migraines or their duration. Most doctors tasked with helping you manage your migraines will prescribe either abortive medications or preventive medications.

Beta-blockers, anti-seizure drugs and anti-depressants are also prescribed. New neuromodulation devices have also become available that treat or prevent migraines using electrical nerve stimulation.

A Word From Verywell

Stress-induced migraines can be very painful and prevent people from going to school, working and participating in a full and meaningful life. You can reclaim your life. Work with your healthcare provider or a migraine specialist who can recommend the right treatments for you.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Genetics of Migraine. American Migraine Foundation. May 2017.

  2. Migraine. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. February 2021
  3. Radat F. [Stress and migraine]Rev Neurol (Paris). 2013;169(5):406-412. doi:10.1016/j.neurol.2012.11.008

  4. Stubberud A, Buse DC, Kristoffersen ES, Linde M, Tronvik E. Is there a causal relationship between stress and migraine? Current evidence and implications for managementJ Headache Pain. 2021;22(1):155. doi:10.1186/s10194-021-01369-6

  5. Wells RE, O'Connell N, Pierce CR, Estave P, Penzien DB, Loder E, Zeidan F, Houle TT. Effectiveness of Mindfulness Meditation vs Headache Education for Adults With Migraine: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2021 Mar 1;181(3):317-328. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.7090

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.