Anxiety and Migraine: What's the Connection?

Health Writer

People who live with Migraine headaches are three times more likely to have generalized anxiety disorder according to a University of Toronto study published 2016.

In the general population, around two percent of people have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but among those with Migraine headaches that jumps to six percent, according to researchers.

In the most recent study, scientists looked at data from 21,502 respondents to the Canadian Health Survey-Mental Health completed in 2012. The researchers hoped to answer questions regarding the prevalence rate of GAD in adults with Migraine and whether limitations on daily living activities from headaches caused a higher rate of anxiety. They also hoped to discover other mitigating factors that contributed to anxiety in those with Migraines. The researchers believed this information could be used to help reduce anxiety symptoms for those who had both Migraine and GAD.

The correlation between Migraine and GAD wasn’t surprising. This same result has shown up in previous studies, including one completed in 2012. But the researchers did find some surprising results, including:

  • Men who have Migraines had a higher risk of GAD than women with Migraines did.
  • Some factors that the researchers thought would play a role in the likelihood of GAD for those with Migraines did not. These include age, race, marital status, religious coping, physical activity, obesity, substance abuse and adverse childhood experiences.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found the data backed up previous data that showed individuals with low income and those who lacked personal support system were more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Men, Migraines and GAD

Typically, women are more likely to have Migraines than men. Migraines are more common in boys than in girls before puberty. But once the hormones hit, girls are three times more likely to have Migraines than their male counterparts, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Hormonal fluctuations during menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause are thought to be to blame. But this increase in the number of headaches doesn’t translate into a risk for GAD. Men who have Migraines are much more likely to have GAD.

The researchers aren’t sure why this is so, but they speculate that men are less likely to seek treatment or take medication for headaches. This might cause Migraine disease to be less controlled and more painful. Migraine headaches can be debilitating. In the throes of a Migraine headache, you might find it difficult to get out of bed, complete household responsibilities, be there for your family or go to work. There are 113 million lost workdays in the United States each year due to Migraine disease, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. The stress of not knowing when a headache will strike might cause men to worry and be more prone to anxiety disorders.

The link between low income, Migraines and GAD

The Toronto study backed up previous research showing that those with Migraine disease who were considered low income had an increased risk of GAD. The researchers speculated that those in lower income brackets could not afford the non-traditional treatments that those in higher income brackets use to minimize the effects of Migraine, such as massages, gym memberships and hiring household assistance for household chores and babysitting.

In the United States, financial problems might also contribute to stress. Migraine disease results in more than $5.4 billion dollars in medical care annually according to the Migraine Research Foundation. The current study was completed in Canada, where there is access to publicly funded — and often free — health care. The financial burden of lost wages might still be present in Canada, but respondents did not have the extra burden of dealing with astronomical health care costs as so many Americans so often do.

The need for personal support systems

A social support system is vital when dealing with any chronic illness, including Migraine headaches and anxiety. The Toronto researchers indicated that “it appears that social support is a protective factor against the development and expression of anxiety.” A satisfactory social support system was associated with lower pain intensity, decreased rates of depression, higher daily functioning and a protection against anxiety. Personal support systems are often drawn from a small circle of caring family and friends; however, if you do not have a ready-made support system, you can create one. Start by writing down people in your life who have shown the ability to be caring, supportive and non-judgmental. They might be medical professionals; people at school; friends from your church, synagogue or mosque; work colleagues; neighbors; and, of course, your family. Reach out to those people.

If you are having trouble thinking of people who can offer support, look for ways to be more engaged in your community, church or neighborhood to start to develop relationships. Surrounding yourself with caring people is good for your physical and emotional well-being.

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