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Understanding the Connection Between Stress and Migraines

Migraines and Stress

Emotional stress is no stranger to many who suffer from migraine; four out of five identify it as a trigger of migraine attacks. Yet in spite of this common and well-known association, the processes that may connect migraine and anxiety at the physiological level remain largely a mystery.

In this article, we’ll dive into the relationship between stress and migraine, exploring scientific findings that may shed light on the way they interact. We’ll also lay out solutions that can help patients minimize stress and better manage their migraine symptoms, including a surprising connection that both share with light.

Does stress cause migraines?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “40% of adults experience persistent stress in their daily lives.” We know that long-term stress can lead to health problems down the road. In this way, could some of this population wind up with migraine due to stress?

Stress triggers headache in people with migraine but not in people without migraine

In a 2010 study published in Headache, a sample of 200 consecutive new patients admitted to a Cleveland clinic were surveyed in an effort to better understand the prevalence of various migraine triggers. Of the 182 who reported having at least one trigger, the most common was “emotional stress” (59% of those surveyed), followed by “too much or too little sleep” (53.5%), and “odors” (49.5%).

In another study, conducted by W.J. Becker of the University of Calgary, “stress was found to initiate headache in those predisposed to migraine, but not in people without migraine. In other words, stress may trigger a migraine attack and if occurring too often, it can also lead to more frequent attacks that eventually become chronic.

What about depression?

Based on findings from a 2017 study of 782 patients, it’s likely that any association that may exist between migraine and depression is not as strong as that shared by migraine and stress. According to Mario Fernando Prieto Peres and others, “anxiety was more robustly associated with increase in migraine risk than depression.” The team went on further to write that “lack of ability to properly control worrying and to relax are the most prominent issues in migraine psychiatric comorbidity.”

Migraine after stress

It may not just be periods of stress that trigger symptoms, as many patients report occurrence of migraine after stress. A 2014 study echoes these reports, concluding that migraine patients who experience a drop in stress levels from one day to the next may be at significant risk of migraine onset on the subsequent day — a period commonly referred to as the “let-down.”

Can migraines cause anxiety?

Unlike stress, insufficient sleep, skipping meals, flickering bright lights, loud noise, exposure to perfume, barometric pressure changes, being too hot or too cold and many other common migraine triggers, anxiety, irritability, and other negative emotions are some of the classical symptoms that accompany migraine attacks. In other words, they are the result of a migraine attack rather than its cause.

The tight anatomical and physiological connection between stress and anxiety (for example) often leads to a “vicious cycle” whereby stress leads to migraine and migraine leads to anxiety, which then intensifies the stress and consequently the migraine attack.

Green light illuminates a possible connection

Light sensitivity, referred to as photophobia, is a well-known symptom of migraine. Scientists now have a detailed understanding of the pathways that connect light and migraine pain, as well as the processes that transpire via these pathways, thanks to novel research from Dr. Rami Burstein of Harvard University.

In 2010, Dr. Burstein and his team published a study in Nature Neuroscience pinpointing a previously unknown pathway by which light increases migraine headache. The findings stemmed from their work with blind patients early on in the study, which led them to find that some of the blind patients could detect the presence of light, while others could not detect light at all. For the latter group, light had no effect on migraine. But for blind patients who could still detect light, its presence could make migraines more painful — especially blue light.

Inspired by these findings, Dr. Burstein set out over the next five years to better understand the effects of all colors of light on the migraine experience. By exposing patients with normal eyesight to wavelengths of white (regular room light), blue, green, amber, and red lights during a migraine, the team found that nearly all of the colors increased headache intensity in patients with normal eyesight (a population that makes up the a large majority of the 36 million Americans who suffer migraine). The single outlier was a narrow band of green light that actually seemed to ease headache intensity. It is this discovery that gave rise to the groundbreaking treatment now commonly referred to as green light therapy.

Perhaps just as interesting is that Dr. Burstein would eventually find the effects of light are not limited to headache intensity. They impact the many physiological and emotional symptoms that patients experience during their headaches — from chest and throat tightness to nausea and even anxiety. These unpleasant physiological perceptions, much like migraine intensity, are both caused by and soothed by different colors of light.

How green light can ease the cycle

Even if we don’t have a full understanding of how the brain links migraine and anxiety, we can still use green light to ease both. In doing so, patients can escape the “vicious cycle” more quickly and minimize the impact of emotional stress as a trigger of migraine headaches and other symptoms.

Less intense, less frequent migraines could result in less stress overall for patients, especially those whose heightened anxiety sensitivity may lead to more severe symptoms. Meanwhile, quelling migraine-induced anxiety could calm the feedback loop that feeds on itself and amplifies an attack.

A source of narrow-band green light such as the Allay Lamp can light the way to relief from both, providing patients with a portable and affordable tool to turn to during an attack ($149 with free shipping).

Incorporate these practices along with green light

Quality Sleep

A majority of the 182 patients in the Cleveland clinic study who reported having migraine triggers named emotional stress as one — but you might also remember that “too much or little sleep” came in a close second. A more recent study published in 2016 reiterates the significance of sleep by noting that a lack of quality of sleep is associated with increased migraine frequency.

Research shows us that anxiety is similarly impacted by sleep and that people with anxiety are more sensitive to insufficient sleep. Thus, quality sleep, much like narrow-band green light, has the potential to ease both anxiety and migraine frequency.

Here are a few tips that can lead to better sleep habits:

  • Try to sleep and wake at consistent times, and set alarms to avoid oversleeping.
  • Use narrow-band green light to wind down in the evening (your nightstand is a great location for an Allay Lamp or Desk Light).
  • Reduce blue light exposure before bed by putting screens away (try replacing them with reading or other activities illuminated by Allay).
  • Don’t eat late in the evening to ensure proper production of hormones such as melatonin at bedtime.

Mindfulness and Meditation

Incorporating mindfulness and meditation into daily routines (also known as mindfulness-based stress reduction) is a proactive stress-management solution that can also have a positive impact on migraine — especially headache symptoms. A 2016 study found that MBSR reduced perceived pain levels among patients with chronic headache, while a separate study found that patients who practiced MBSR experienced 1.4 fewer migraines per month.

Take control of stress and migraine

Empowered by a better understanding of how migraine and anxiety interact, patients can start to take steps to manage them both and minimize their effects on one another. Luckily, some of the strongest sources of relief are natural ways to help migraines that don’t need a prescription and are easy to integrate into your daily routine. Start with the ideas above and focus on one at a time, tracking your progress and migraine activity along the way. The results might surprise you!

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