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Managing Stress For Migraines

How Does Stress Affect Us?

Stress is a very common migraine trigger, 4 out of 5 people with migraines report stress as a trigger. It’s not clear how stress causes migraines, partly because it’s not really clear to anyone what exactly causes migraines, but we definitely see a connection between stress and both tension type headaches and migraines.

But how does stress actually turn into a Migraine? There are a few things that happen when we are stressed.

  • The muscles especially in the area of the neck, jaw and head may tense up. Many migraine patients suffer from pain in the neck, and doctors are still trying to understand if this pain is a symptom of the migraine or rather a trigger for it.
  • Stress hormones change the way the brain functions, making certain functions over-stimulated and others under-stimulated. This includes our sensitivity to pain, and our focus on painful stimulus.
  • Finally stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, and an overly active and depleted sympathetic nervous system has been linked to being a cause of migraines.

But wait…. it get’s worse 🙁

Unfortunately, one of the main causes of stress is… chronic pain, which means that if at first the stress is the cause of your migraine, the chronic pain you suffer due to your migraine itself may later become the cause of the stress. this creates a vicious cycle where the Migraine causes your stress, and your stress causes your migraine, and on an on the cycle goes, worsening over time.

And even worse…

It goes even deeper than that, some researches today such as the 2013 research by Nasim MalekiLino Becerra, and David Borsook titled “Migraine: Maladaptive Brain Responses to Stress“. Have demonstrated that Migraine might be the brain’s response to stress. Which means that this vicious cycle goes beyond temporary effect. The brain is ‘plastic’ which means it keeps changing over time. this change can be positive and it can be negative.

The negative aspect is that stress changes certain brain centers, this change will remain even after the stress is removed, the research I mentioned above shows that Migraines might be one of those changes. And as was mentioned before migraines in their turn can also become a cause that changes the structure of the brain, producing more migraines, and more stress. And this is partly why migraines can be so hard to overcome. But… there is also good news.


How to make it better?

Ok, remember we said that the brain was ‘plastic’, that it could change. In the same way that negative stressors and chronic pain can shape the brain in a way that makes our lives harder, other things that manage stress can help us in two ways:

  1. It breaks the cycle
  2. In the long run they can reshape the brain in way that diminishes migraines. <— wait till the end of the post to see how to practically do this.

Promoting Relaxation & Managing Stress

Before I share with you the stronger methods that will speed the changes in your brain for the better I would like to present to you some general points, and some general techniques that will promote de-stressing and  relaxation. The reason I share these first is that if you just do any of the deeper techniques, without taking care of yourself in your day to day life will make them far less effective. It’s not that they will not work, they will, but for the best effects you need to take care of yourself on multiple levels at the same time.

Put yourself first

This does not mean you are egoistic, even if you have people in your life you are taking care of you still need to put yourself first, if you are not functioning you cannot help anyone else. Sacrificing yourself for someone else does not help them. Even firefighters need to make sure that they are relatively safe before entering into a burning building, if the fire is too hot they will not be able to rescue anyone.

Get your priorities straight

Life decisions and responsibilities can be a major stressors, make sure you set your priorities, deal now with what you need to deal now and leave for later what can be postponed, trying to tackle everything at the same time can overwhelm us.

Get enough sleep

Another study from 2013 of over two hundred migraine patients, found that more than 85% had poor sleep quality, which was connected for them with headache frequency, depression, and anxiety. In an article, titled “Sleep, Insomnia, and Migraine,” Drs. Halker, Vargas, and Dodick introduce a simple treatment plan for better sleep.  some of the tips for making your sleep better include: avoiding food  at least 2 hours and caffeine at least 6 hours before going to bed, getting to bed at the same time every night, and avoiding screens for an hour before bedtime.

Eat well

Foods can help mitigate or relieve stress. Comfort foods, which can be anything that makes you feel cozy and at home, and therefore are different for each person, boost the levels of serotonin, a calming brain chemical in your brain. In addition, all carbs stimulate serotonin production, especially if these are complex carbs that are digested slowly and have a longer effect on your bloodstream. Complex carbs also keep a balanced blood sugar level which helps maintain calmness. try consuming whole grain carbs, such as whole breads, whole grain pasta etc. And if you feel you are getting stressed taking a bit of sugary food momentarily can help you avoid going down the stress highway.

Take foods rich in Vitamin-C, Magnesium, Omega-3 fatty foods.

Finally Other foods can cut levels of cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones that work against serotonin, to lower these consume foods such as: dark chocolate, bananas and pears, black or green tea, and probiotics.

Make time for your loved ones

Studies have shown that spending time together with loved ones reduces stress. And sharing in conversation with people, even strangers can have the same effect. So schedule time to be with your friends and family and share your life, and  how you feel with them.

Do things you enjoy

Even if our life circumstances may be difficult overall, In the moments when we are having fun our body relaxes. Try to do one fun thing a day!


Learning how to relax

Let’s go beyond prevention, and let’s talk about something proactive, researches demonstrate that using relaxation techniques that aim at a physical relaxation of the body most often coupled with guided imagery have an effect of lowering cortisol levels, and test subjects that had been in the group performing the relaxation scored lower on a test score.

In my next blog I will explore the different techniques of relaxation, the benefits and drawbacks of the different methods and approaches.