Relaxation Techniques for Migraines and Headaches

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on July 25, 2023
4 min read

Review these questions on migraines and headaches before visiting your doctor.

To learn how to relax and cope with migraines and headaches, you need to become familiar with your own breathing patterns and change them in ways that will help you relax. Your breathing pattern is often disrupted by changes in emotion. Some people who are anxious tend to hold their breath and speak in a high-pitched voice as they exhale. On the other hand, some people who are depressed tend to sigh and speak in a low-pitched voice as they exhale.

Here are a few relaxation exercises. But first, be sure that you have a quiet location that is free of distractions and a comfortable body position. As hard as it sounds, try to block out worries and distracting thoughts.

  • Rhythmic breathing: If your breathing is short and hurried, slow it down by taking long, slow breaths. Inhale slowly then exhale slowly. Count slowly to five as you inhale, and then count slowly to five as you exhale. As you exhale slowly, pay attention to how your body naturally relaxes. Recognizing this change will help you to relax even more.
  • Deep breathing: Imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into that spot, filling your abdomen with air. Let the air fill you from the abdomen up, then let it out, like deflating a balloon. With every long, slow exhalation, you should feel more relaxed.
  • Visualized breathing: Find a comfortable place where you can close your eyes, and combine slowed breathing with your imagination. Picture relaxation entering your body and tension leaving your body. Breathe deeply, but in a natural rhythm. Visualize your breath coming into your nostrils, going into your lungs and expanding your chest and abdomen. Then, visualize your breath going out the same way. Continue breathing, but each time you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in more relaxation. Each time you exhale imagine that you are getting rid of a little more tension.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Switch your thoughts to yourself and your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body. Notice your headache, if you have one, and other areas that feel tense or cramped. Quickly loosen up these areas. Let go of as much tension as you can. Rotate your head in a smooth, circular motion once or twice. (Stop any movements that cause pain!) Roll your shoulders forward and backward several times. Let all of your muscles completely relax. Recall a pleasant thought for a few seconds. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly. You should feel relaxed.
  • Relax to music: Combine relaxation exercises with your favorite music in the background. Select the type of music that lifts your mood or that you find soothing or calming. Some people find it easier to relax while listening to specially designed relaxation audio tapes, which provide music and relaxation instructions.
  • Mental imagery relaxation: Mental imagery relaxation, or guided imagery, is a proven form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. Guided imagery coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind -- a "mental escape." Identify your self-talk, that is, what you are saying to yourself about what is going on with your migraines or headaches. It is important to identify negative self-talk and develop healthy, positive self-talk. By making affirmations, you can counteract negative thoughts and emotions. Here are some positive statements you can practice.
    • Let go of things I cannot control.
    • I am healthy, vital, and strong.
    • There is nothing in the world I cannot handle.
    • All my needs are met.
    • I am completely and utterly safe.
    • Every day in every way I am getting stronger.
  • Meditation: There are lots of approaches to meditation. All make you stop and observe. That means you stop the flow of thoughts in your mind and concentrate on a single thing, typically your breathing. Done on a regular basis, meditation, or “mindfulness practice” as some call it, can help your response to pain, including migraine.
  • Yoga: This ancient Hindu practice mixes careful breathing and calming meditation with body poses that help stretch and strengthen your muscles and tendons.
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): This is a psychotherapy approach that helps you change thought patterns and behaviors that can make you more tense and may raise your risk for a migraine attack. Ask your doctor or mental health specialist about a professional who can help you with this approach.
  • Biofeedback: This technique uses electronic devices to measure breathing rate, heart rate, skin temperature, skin perspiration, muscle tension, and other physical responses. It then “feeds back” this information in the form of graphs or sounds from a computer that suggest you are getting more tense or less tense. Over time you try to learn to control your body’s response so that you’re less tense. Some research suggests this could help with migraine.