Stress in society is at an all time high; between the coronavirus, the upcoming elections, the financial sector’s health, and the media’s coverage of all of these, staying calm can be very difficult. We often overlook the negative impact this stress can have on our health. As a neurologist, I see many patients who list stress as a trigger for their migraines. It is important to understand how stress can trigger migraines, and find ways to manage stress to keep your brain healthier in the long run.
Stress can come from many sources. From the outside world, stress can result from worry about current events, arguments with friends and family, social obligations, and many other sources. Inside the body, changes in hormone levels, whether as part of a menstrual cycle or in response to events in the outside world, can put extra stress on our brains. Eventually, we fall under enough stress that our brain’s ability to function normally is overwhelmed. When the brain cannot maintain this balance, it releases many substances to signal pain. These substances trigger the cascade that eventually leads to a migraine. Some people, due to their genetics, may have a more delicate balance than others, making them more susceptible to migraines. So how do we keep our brains healthy when there is so much working against them?
Sometimes, getting away from a major stressor in your life can be difficult. Stepping away from the television and all the discouraging news may seem difficult. But taking a little time for yourself and doing something that makes you happy—a dinner out with friends, a quick hike in the woods, or an escape to a good book—may help you feel refreshed and ready to deal with the problems of the day.
More and more research has shown that exercise helps reduce stress and metabolize the stress hormones circulating in your body. Exercise also reduces the long term risk of many medical conditions including heart disease, many cancers, stroke, diabetes, and so many other conditions. Whether it is a walk outside, a quick run along the trail, a swim in the pool in summertime, or a bike ride, exercise can restore our bodies and refresh your mind, helping it maintain its balance and avoid the cascade into a migraine.
Inadequate sleep and sleep deprivation make you more likely to be stressed. Furthermore, your stressors may swirl around in your heads as you try to sleep, creating a snowball effect where you cannot sleep because you are stressed, and you have more stress because you cannot sleep. Such sleepless nights are often followed by a migraine the next day, leading to more stress, and so on. Good sleep is needed to break this cycle.
A warm bath before bedtime may be helpful. Removing any reminders of the day’s stress from your room can also make sleep easier. Relaxation techniques, such as repeating words with positive meanings, using calming scents and music, and self-hypnosis, may be useful at bedtime. Going to bed at the same time every evening and avoiding screens—computers, televisions, and yes, even smartphones—might also help you fall asleep. Avoiding these screens can be yet another way to avoid the stressors of the media. When in bed, cooler temperatures, focusing on your breathing, and avoiding looking at the clock can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less.
Many things we eat and drink can make our stress levels higher. Caffeine, while helpful for waking up in the morning, is a stimulant that may make you more excitable and increase stress levels. Nicotine, found in tobacco products such as cigarettes, is also a stimulant and can have a similar effect. Some foods we eat may also directly serve as migraine triggers. It is helpful to keep track of which foods and beverages trigger your migraines so that you can cut them out of your diet and make a migraine less likely.
Alcohol may seem to provide some relief from stress in the short term, but hormonal changes triggered by longtime alcohol use can cause an increased release of stress hormones and migraines. That is without even accounting for all the other health problems that come with alcohol overuse that can place your body at increased physiologic as well as mental stress.
We live in some difficult times, and no one can go it alone. Whether it is a friend, family, coworker, or even a medical provider, talking to someone about your stress can clear your mind and help you release some of the tension. A stress journal may be a helpful release valve, but it alone cannot replace talking to someone when you are at your most stressed.
While keeping current with the news can help inform some of our decisions, we need to be mindful of the potential migraines that come with it and focus on strategies to avoid them.