Is Stress a Migraine Trigger?

by MigraineCast Patient Expert

The first component of effective Migraine disease management is the identification and management of triggers. Triggers are very individual. What's a trigger for one Migraineur isn't necessarily a trigger for all Migraineurs.

There is some controversy as to whether stress is an actual trigger. The International Headache Society has moved it from their list of triggers to their list of exacerbating factors on the premise that it doesn't by itself trigger Migraines but it does make us more susceptible to our triggers.

An analogy is the best way I know to explain it. When we're stressed, we're more likely to "catch a cold." It's not stress that causes the cold; it's the cold virus. The stress just made us more vulnerable to the virus.

Many believe that stress and migraine have the same kind of relationship. Stress doesn't actually trigger a migraine, but makes us more susceptible to our triggers.

So, what does it matter if stress is an actual trigger or an exacerbating factor that makes us more susceptible to our triggers? It matters because if we accept stress as a trigger, we may not fully embrace that first component of effective Migraine management -- the identification and management of triggers. If we accept stress as a trigger, we stop looking for other triggers we may be encountering during stressful situations. We may well do ourselves a great disservice if we accept stress as a trigger rather than looking for triggers in how we react to stress, triggers that might be avoidable and manageable.

I'll use myself as an example. It would be easy for me to assume stress is a trigger because I tend to be more likely to develop a Migraine during periods of stress. But, when I kept a detailed Migraine diary, I discovered these triggers that I tend to encounter at such times:

  • skipping meals

  • crying

  • not drinking enough water

  • clenching my teeth

  • too little sleep or disrupted sleep

When considering stress and its role in Migraines, we need to look at the different kinds of stress as well. We usually think of the negative mental or emotional stress, but there are other kinds as well. The negative stress is more accurately called "distress." There's stress in good situations as well - new jobs, getting married, the birth of a child, a great date. That's called "eustress."

We need also to consider not only emotional stress, but physical as well. We may not feel stressed when, in fact, our bodies are stressed, and when our bodies are stressed, we're more susceptible to our triggers. Ever wonder why we seem to have more Migraines when we're ill? We have a cold or the flu, and to add insult to injury, we get a nasty Migraine on top of everything else. It's because the stress on our bodies make us more susceptible to our triggers. Things that might not be enough to trigger a Migraine when we're well can be strong enough when our bodies are stressed.

What's the bottom line here? In a way, it doesn't really matter if stress is a trigger or an exacerbating factor. It doesn't matter until you stop to consider that if we accept it as a trigger and don't look for other triggers, we may lose the opportunity to avoid some Migraines.

Remember the triggers I discovered in stressful situations? Knowing those has helped me avoid many Migraine attacks. If you think stress is a Migraine trigger for you, I encourage you to keep a good Migraine diary and look for other, possibly avoidable triggers that you may not have noticed before in stressful times. We owe ourselves that much - to be kind to ourselves and avoid as many Migraines as possible.

Coping with severe headaches and Migraine disease for over 40 years has brought me to the realization that learning about Migraine disease and headaches can allow us to work with our doctors as treatment partners to gain control over headaches and Migraines rather than them controlling us. Please join us at for information and support or for a transcript of this podcast. From and the HealthCentral Network, this is Teri Robert reminding you that you can indeed live well, even with Migraine disease and headaches.

© Teri Robert, 2007

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