When Stress Is a Chronic Migraine Trigger

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on February 29, 2024
3 min read

Stress and migraines are linked in a vicious cycle. Stress in your life can trigger a migraine and keep it going. Chronic migraine pain can boost your stress.

As many as 80% of people who get migraines list stress as a common trigger. These people also have reported high-stress levels. The stress-headache connection may be worse in women than in men.

If you have chronic migraine -- headaches on at least 15 days of the month -- you’re likely to have high-stress levels. The combination of headaches and stress can lower your quality of life, too.

How do you manage the stress-migraine cycle? These steps can help you avoid stressors that trigger headaches and manage your stress better.

Frequent or severe stress can change your brain’s functions and structures. These changes will only get worse as the stress continues.

If you have chronic migraines, your brain acts differently than the brains of healthy, migraine-free people. Even between headaches, your brain can be in an overexcited state. Changes in brain structure may result from frequent migraines.

Many kinds of stress or stressful events can kick off a migraine. Stress can also result from happy events, like buying a new home, planning a wedding, or having a baby.

Some research shows that regular, day-to-day stressors like a high-pressure job, long commute, or raising kids are more likely to cause headaches than unusual stress. Daily stress that never really lets up can lead to chronic headaches.

Some people have a migraine when their regular stress lets up. After a tough week at work, you may think you’re ready to relax and enjoy your weekend, but then you get a migraine. That could be because your brain is used to the constant stress. The sudden change in your routine triggers a headache.

Don’t let stress get out of control. Take these tips to manage or prevent it:

  • Get some exercise. Make time for a 30-minute daily walk.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet. Add more fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
  • Write out your stress. Start a journal. Let your emotions and thoughts flow out so you can deal with them instead of letting stress build up.
  • Get enough sleep each night. About 85% of people with migraines say they sleep poorly. Stress can keep you awake at night. When you sleep well, your body and mind can recharge for the next day. Set a regular bedtime routine and stick to it.

If you can identify regular stress and migraine triggers, you may be able to make some changes to avoid them or lower their impact.

Maybe your daily highway commute is rough. See if you can take public transportation. That means you can read or listen to music while someone else drives.

If that isn’t an option, ask your employer if you can change your work hours to avoid high traffic times or telecommute on certain days.

If you feel more frazzled when things seem out of control, find ways to stay organized. Make a schedule to follow each day. Do some tasks ahead of time so you don’t feel overwhelmed by large projects.

Or maybe you feel you have too much going on at once. Make a list of which tasks are most important to do now and which ones can wait. Set priorities. Focus your energy on what means the most to you.

It’s important to take care of yourself and make time to relax. Schedule time for a daily workout. Say no to unnecessary requests.

Yoga relieves stress for many people. Take a class to learn how to do the moves and controlled breathing that helps you relax. Learn how to meditate to calm stress and manage pain.

You may need counseling or medication if ongoing stress causes chronic migraines. Find a therapist who can help you manage it better. Also, take migraine medications as your doctor prescribes. Biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy are two techniques that can help you manage chronic stress and pain better. They may even help prevent headaches.