Migraines and stress
Reviewed by our clinical team
Migraine is a common condition causing painful, throbbing headaches and occasionally other symptoms like visual disturbances. If you get migraines, you’ll know that symptoms are typically set off by certain triggers.
Some of these triggers might be unavoidable – for instance, hormonal changes around your period or during pregnancy. Others might be easier to control as they’re related to your lifestyle, like drinking caffeine or alcohol.
In the case of stress (a really common trigger for migraines) tackling the issue can be complex, but not impossible! If you notice your migraine symptoms are set off during or after a period of stress, read on to find out what you can do.
Types of migraine
There are lots of different types of migraine, but three of the main ones include:
- Migraine with aura – this is when you get warning signs of a migraine coming like flashing light
- Migraine without aura – this is when a migraine occurs without any warning
- Migraine aura without headache (silent migraine) – this is when you have migraine symptoms, including things like flashing lights, but never have the headache
Why does stress cause migraines?
It’s not clear what the link between stress and migraines is, partly because the causes of migraines aren’t fully understood. One theory is that migraines affect the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, including serotonin, which helps to regulate pain.
Experiencing intense stress for long periods can affect you mentally and physically, and lead to unhealthy lifestyle habits like irregular sleep, poor diet, and increased alcohol consumption. These kinds of factors can all be triggers for migraines.
Stress migraine symptoms
Stress migraines have the same symptoms as most migraines, but they might come on when you’re stressed or after a big stress has been relived.
Migraine symptoms include:
- Moderate to severe headache
- Throbbing on one side of the head
- Sensitivity to light and sound (phonophobia)
Why do I keep getting stress migraines?
Stress can be a trigger for migraines, but so can relief from tension. You might notice that you sometimes get symptoms of a tension headache or migraine at the end of a really busy week, just as you’re preparing to put your feet up and enjoy your weekend! One small study from 2014 found that migraines were really common in people who reported a decline in stress from one day to the next.
This is sometimes known as a “weekend headache” and it may not just be related to stress but other factors that accompany a busy week e.g. disrupted sleep and diet, and too much caffeine.
Stress migraine treatment
If you’re having frequent or severe migraines, it’s important that you speak to your GP. With the right treatment and lifestyle changes, migraines can become much easier to manage.
Medical treatments for migraines include:
- Ibuprofen and paracetamol
- Anti-sickness medicines
If you can manage your migraine pain with over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol you might not need any prescription treatments. If you need painkillers more than two days a week for headaches you should talk about this with your GP. Taking painkillers frequently can actually lead to something called "medication overuse headache".
If you can’t manage your pain this way, or you get more than on migraine a month, you should make an appointment to speak to your GP. They might prescribe triptans, a medication that can often stop your headache from becoming a full blown migraine attack. Your doctor might also prescribe an anti-sickness medicine.
For people whose get migraines more than 15 times a month, preventative treatments like topiramate and propranolol are available, as well as Vydura (rimegepant).
If you find that your migraines are set off by stress, making some lifestyle changes to reduce your stress might really help. You could also start a headache diary, to see if there are any patterns to the symptoms.
This isn’t always easy, but you can start by trying to identify the causes of your stress e.g. an unmanageable workload or problems in a relationship. Try to open up a conversation with the people involved to let them know what you’re experiencing, and to work out ways to reduce your stress.
Other stress-busting techniques recommended by the NHS include:
- Regular exercise
- Taking time for yourself to relax and unwind
- Setting goals to work towards
- Cutting back on unhealthy habits
Stress reduction aside, migraine management will be easier if you’re able to create a healthy daily routine. Where possible, stick to a regular sleep schedule and eat your meals at the same time each day.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is make sure you talk to other people about what you’re going through. Letting people know that you’re experiencing stress and migraine pain means they can offer support and help you find ways to manage your condition.
For more guidance about asking for help, visit this page from The Migraine Trust.
Prescription migraine treatment from Online Doctor
Our doctors can prescribe triptans, a safe, routine migraine treatment that will help you manage your pain.
Simply select your treatment and fill out a short questionnaire. One of our doctors will assess your answers to make sure you’re suitable for treatment. If it’s safe for you to take triptans, we’ll approve your prescription and make it available for collection or home delivery.