Although the relationship, and the reasons for it, between anxiety and migraine isn’t fully understood, most experts agree that there is a connection between the two. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America there may be a common predisposition to anxiety disorders, depression and migraines. In particular, those with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder have a higher rate of migraines and chronic headaches. And as many as half of those with migraine have an anxiety disorder.
A migraine causes intense pain on one or both sides of the head and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and a sensitivity to noise and light. Migraines can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. Some people experience an aura prior to a migraine attack. The exact cause of migraines isn’t known but experts believe a combination of genetics and environmental factors contribute to migraines. Serotonin, a chemical in the brain also related to anxiety, may be involved. Levels of serotonin decrease during a migraine attack.
Some of the common triggers for a migraine attack include:
- Certain foods, such as aged cheese
- Skipping meals
- Additives in foods, such as MSG or aspartame
- Alcoholic beverages
- Caffeinated beverages
- Sensory stimuli, such as bright lights and intense smells
- Sleep changes - getting too much sleep or not getting enough sleep
- Some medications
In addition, stress may contribute to migraines. At one time stress was listed as a trigger by the International Headache Society but this has been changed and stress is now listed as an exacerbating factor. This means that stress may not directly trigger a migraine attack but can make you more susceptible to other triggers.
Teri Robert, Health Guide for Migraine at Health Central, believes this is an important distinction, "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." For example, Teri explains, during times of high stress you may have a migraine and assume it is caused by the stress. But, during this time you might also be skipping meals, crying, not drinking enough water, clenching your teeth or not sleeping right. All of these can be triggers for migraine. It is therefore, not the stress that triggered the migraine but your reaction to the stress.
Treatment for Anxiety and Migraine
There are a number of different medications for treating migraine. In addition, tracking your triggers and taking steps to reduce those in your daily life can help to reduce the frequency of migraines. For more information on migraine treatment: Migraine Medications and Treatments
Some medications may help to treat both anxiety and headache pain, such as tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors and some anxiolytics. It is important to track your medication use and keep a headache diary as some medications can be a trigger for migraine.
It is important to work closely with your doctor and advise him of any medications you may be taking, for anxiety, migraines or any other health conditions. For some people, your family doctor can help you manage migraines but for others, a doctor who specializes in migraine treatment is needed. See: Migraine and Headache Specialists - What’s So Special?
"Depression and Anxiety in Migraine Patients," 2013, Todd A. Smitherman and Steven M. Baskin, ACHE.org
"Headaches," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Anxiety and Depression Association of America
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.