How to Deal with Stress Migraines

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From a medical perspective, stress appears to be an emotional, physical, or mental element that causes tension. Stress migrianes can be from psychological, environmental, or social influences.

A migraine is an intricate condition with a number of vast symptoms. However a severe pulsing excruciating headache is the main symptom. Other symptoms include distracted vision, nausea, and light sensitivity.

Hormones such as noradrenaline and or adrenaline cause instantaneous physical responses such as increased heart rate, faster breathing, release of large amounts of glucose and fats, and enlargement of blood vessels when you are severely stressed over a long period of time. Stress is one of the main reasons why people suffer from migraines today.

A study of 250 people in 1999 found that people with migraines had significantly higher stress levels than those who did not suffer from it. In addition, it indicated that women were more likely to suffer from stress migraines due to higher stress levels than male participants.

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How Does Stress Cause Migraines?

1. Stress Hormones

Stress causes an excess secretion of neurotransmitters of the brain such as:

  • Adrenaline
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine
  • Serotonin

The excess secretion of these neurotransmitters is the consequence of the “fight or flight” reaction stressful situations. I return, your brain creates less serotonin that triggers anxiety and depression. Once the stressful situation subsides or you experience less stress, your brain begins to try and regain a proper balance of hormones. The hormone imbalance is caused by excessive spreading of the serotonin hormone and the blood vessels in your brain start to expand. These particular vessels are located close to the trigeminal nerve. As the vessels expand, it places sufficient pressure on this nerve that brings about the migraine.

2. Neck Muscle Tension

Hormones are not the only culprits that can cause stress migraines. A deficiency of cerebrospinal fluid can cause a sudden decrease of serotonin as well, which have the exact same effect.

Cerebrospinal fluid is the fluid found in your spinal cord and brain that purifies your brain from free radicals and other cellular waste. Cerebrospinal fluid also serves as a shock absorber for your brain if you fall or have an accident. It is fluid that protects and cleanses your brain.

It is no secret that when you are stressed, you feel neck pain. The more you get stressed, the more the pain in your neck increases. The pain in your neck is caused by the significant tightness that results in your neck muscles. When this happens, you need to relax your neck muscles. Here’s why.

When your neck muscles become very tight or tense, it can cause the spaces between the vertebrae in your neck to become compressed. In return, because the vertebrae are pulled closer together, it can restrict the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid from and to your brain.

When this happens it consequently causes the serotonin levels in your brain to decrease quickly. Once the serotonin levels decrease this fast, your brain once again starts to regain proper hormonal levels. The blood vessels start to expand again and place just enough pressure on the trigeminal nerve and the onset of a migraine is highly likely.

How to Relieve Stress Migraines

The typical recommendation for dealing with a stress migraine is to deal with the symptoms immediately. This will help to lessen the severity of the migraine. As soon as you feel a migraine coming on, do the following:

  • Take pain medication such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen. Make sure that you follow the instructions on how to use the medication properly.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, especially if you are nauseous or vomiting.
  • Lie down in a quiet dark room to rest.
  • Apply a cold compress on your neck or head.

Apart from following these steps, you can also do the following to reduce the stress and pain during a migraine:

  • Breathing exercises to reduce stress and tension
  • A gentle face massage will help by improving blood circulation

How to Prevent Stress Migraines Before They Start

There are some relaxation techniques that you can use to reduce the likelihood of stress migraines. For instance, getting some exercise, reading, playing with a pet or simply listening to some music can help.

Some other relaxation techniques include:


Yoga can be used to avoid or help relieve a stress migraine. The most common positions are the standing forward bend over, bridge pose, cat stretch, child pose, and the two legged forward bend.

Breathing Exercises

It is not always possible to escape from noise, bright lights, computers, or situations that cause stress. This is when breathing exercises for stress relief and migraines are really helpful. These simple exercises will help to lower blood pressure, calm you down and lower your stress levels:

1. Three second pause

Place your hand just above your waist and inhale very slowly. Count three seconds and exhale equally slowly. Repeat this for at least 60 seconds.

2. Cooling breath

Close your mouth with the bottom and top teeth touching and open your lips slightly. Bend your head towards the ceiling and inhale slowly, allowing the air to rush over your tongue. Shut your lips and exhale through your nostrils as you bring your head forward again. Repeat up to 10 times or until you feel more relaxed and calm.

3. Five breaths

The objective is to take only five breaths in 60 seconds. Try to inhale for 5 seconds and exhale again for 5 seconds. Keep on doing this for at least 5 minutes.


Meditation helps you relax and stay balanced. When you are in a deep relaxed and rested state, the healing systems of your body are stimulated. This is an effective way to get rid of stress without any negative side effects.


Regular exercise is a super stress reliever. It sets feel good hormones free in the brain and releases tension on affected muscles. It also helps you focus on something other than the stressors in your life for a while.


Learning to manage your stress is the best way to avoid stress migraines. A mere 10 minutes a day can make a meaningful difference to prevent the onset of a stress migraine. Apart from the techniques mentioned above, keep in mind that other factors such as sleep, a balanced healthy diet, and relaxing activities will make a difference in stress related migraines and play a significant role in preventing them too.


Additional Resources

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About the author

I'm an avid reader and love anything to do with mindfulness and mental health!

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