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Anxiety And Migraine Headaches – What To Do

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: August 9, 2019


anxiety-and-migraines headaches

Research has found a link between anxiety disorder and migraine headaches. This link is both ways with anxiety triggering migraine headaches and migraine headaches triggering anxiety. This article explains these links and what you can do to prevent anxiety-triggered migraine headaches or at least reduce the frequency of them.

Anxiety migraine headache symptoms:

  • You’ve been anxious lately and you had your first migraine headache.
  • You’ve been more anxious than normal and you had an increase in the frequency of migraine headaches.
  • You notice that as your anxiety gets worse, you are having more migraine headaches than usual.
  • You notice that the frequency of migraine headaches is tied to an increase in anxiety.
  • You notice you get a migraine headache when you are anxious, or shortly after you’ve been anxious, such as from a few hours to a few days after.
  • You notice you get a migraine headache when you’ve been under stress, or shortly after you’ve been under stress, such as from a few hours to a few days after.
  • You see a pattern of getting migraine headaches when your anxiety and stress are elevated or have been elevated.

Migraine headaches or their frequency can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by themselves.

Migraine headaches or their frequency can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur “out of the blue” and for no apparent reason.

The intensity of migraine headaches can range from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves, where you get a number of migraine headaches at one time but then only a few at another time. Sometimes you can’t see a correlation between migraine headache frequency and your anxiety episodes.

Many people notice their migraine headaches occur after a particularly stressful event or as their anxiety episodes are beginning to quiet down.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

Common migraine headache symptoms

Migraine headaches can include any one or combination of the following symptoms:

  • Headache that grows worse over time.
  • Headache that lasts for days.
  • Headache that can feel worse bending over or moving your head too quickly.
  • Headache on only one side of the head.
  • Headache above or behind the eye.
  • Visual disturbances, such as seeing a wavy bright light that grows into a circle as it expands, wavy bright lines that interfere with your vision, or a sudden blind spot in your vision that grows in size or into a circle over time (ocular migraine or often referred to as a “classic” migraine).
  • Unsteadiness.
  • Feeling like you are walking on a board on the water.
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells.
  • Increased sensitivity to stimuli, including touch.
  • An odd “metallic” taste or feeling in your mouth.
  • Nausea, upset stomach, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, gas cramps.
  • Fatigue.
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness (vestibular migraine).
  • Blurred vision.
  • Feeling flushed or chilled.
  • Stiff neck of back of the head.
  • Feeling like there is a tight band around your head.

You can have a migraine with aura known as the “classic” or “ocular” migraine, have a migraine without aura, or a migraine without a headache. All are common.


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Why does anxiety cause migraines?

At this time, the cause of migraine headaches is unknown. Theories include a change in brain chemistry, inflammation in the brain, and problems with how nerves communicate. Some believe there is a genetic connection which can make a person more sensitive to known migraine triggers.

Nevertheless, there are well-known migraine triggers. Some include:

Anxiety stresses the body.[1][2] Stress is a common trigger for migraine headaches.[3][4] Many migraine sufferers notice a correlation between their episodes of anxiety and migraine frequency.

Strong emotions, such as those associated anxiety, depression, excitement, despair, frustration, anger, shock, and fear are also well-known migraine triggers.[3][4] Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience these types of strong emotions.

Sleep deprivation is also a known migraine trigger, as are certain sleep medications.[4] Anxiety and hyperstimulation often cause problems with sleep. Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience regular sleep disruption. Many also resort to taking sleep medications in an attempt to restore good sleep.

Hormonal changes, stimulants (such as caffeine and chocolate), irregular mealtimes, and dehydration are also known migraine triggers.[4][5] Many anxious people have their hormones affected by elevated stress hormones (since hormones affect each other), eat at irregular hours (many skip meals), ingest stimulants, and don’t drink enough fluids.

Chronic pain is also a common migraine trigger since chronic pain stresses the body.[6] Many anxiety disorder sufferers experience chronic pain as a symptom of anxiety, as well as can have their existing chronic pain issues aggravated by anxiety-caused stress.

A change in the weather is also a common migraine trigger.

As you can see, there are many reasons why anxiety disorder sufferers can have migraine headaches or experience an increase in the frequency of migraine headaches.

Research has also found a correlation between migraine headaches and anxiety.[7][8]

Having migraines can also increase anxiety if a person is worried about their migraine headaches since worry is an example of apprehensive behavior that creates anxiety.

How To Stop Anxiety Migraine Headaches?

Medical Advisory

We recommend all new, changing, persistent, and returning anxiety symptoms be discussed with your doctor as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including this anxiety symptom. If your doctor concludes your symptoms are solely anxiety-related, you can be confident there isn't a medical cause. Generally, doctors can easily determine the difference between anxiety symptoms and those caused by a medical condition.

Doctors aren't infallible, however. If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, you can seek a second or more opinions. But if all opinions agree, you can be assured anxiety is the cause of this symptom.

When your migraine headaches are caused by stress, including anxiety-caused stress, reducing stress can reduce migraine frequency. Reducing stress can also restore good sleep, which can also reduce migraine frequency.

Reducing stress can also reduce pain. Recovery Support members can read our “Chronic Pain” symptom in chapter 9 for more information about how stress and pain are linked.

Eating regularly, avoiding known food triggers, avoiding stimulants, getting regular mild to moderate exercise, drinking sufficient fluids, and managing strong emotions can also reduce migraine frequency.

Prodome symptoms

Some people notice prodome symptoms – subtle changes one to two days before the onset of a migraine. Some prodome symptoms include:

  • Constipation
  • An increase in sleep problems (difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, restless sleep, feeling overly energized, etc.)
  • Unexplained mood changes
  • Food cravings
  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Frequent yawning or feeling short of breath
  • Ringing in the ears or an increase in ringing in the ears
  • Stiff neck or shoulders, or stiffness in the back of the head and scalp
  • Eye sensitivities (things seem brighter and stronger)
  • Vision irregularities (your vision seems somehow odd, distorted, or different, and some people say they have a “hole” in their vision where visual information seems to be missing)

If you notice you are getting prodome symptoms, some people find increasing deep relaxation, rest, and getting good sleep can prevent the impending migraine headache.

Post-dome symptoms

After the migraine headache has ended, some people experience:

  • Feeling drained of energy
  • Their emotions feel flat and lifeless
  • An elated feeling
  • A lightheaded and somewhat dizzy feeling
  • Confused or difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • A dazed feeling
  • A return of headache pain when suddenly moving their head
  • Difficulty bending over because of an odd, lightheaded, or woozy feeling in the head

Overall Prevention

Addressing the specific migraine trigger can prevent migraine headaches or reduce their frequency.

Medication

There are many pain-relieving and prevention medications that can help prevent and reduce the severity of migraine headaches. If these are of interest to you, talk with your doctor and pharmacist about the best options for your specific situation.

Seek Therapy

To reduce and eliminate anxiety triggered migraine headaches, it’s important to address your anxiety issues. As you overcome your anxiety issues, your body’s level of stress will diminish reducing its ability to trigger migraines.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way of overcoming problematic anxiety. All of our recommended therapists have personally experienced and overcame anxiety disorder. Any one of them would be a good choice to help you eliminate your anxiety issues for good.

Reduce Stress

Reducing your body’s overall level of stress will reduce stress-triggered migraine headaches.

There are many ways to reduce stress. For instance, chapter 14 in the Recovery Support area of our website describes over natural 40 ways to reduce stress. Any one or combination can effectively reduce stress and its effects on the body.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety, anxiety symptoms, why anxiety symptoms can persist long after we think they should, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.


The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Disorders Signs and Symptoms section.


REFERENCES:

1. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.

2. Smith, Sean M., and Wylie W. Vale. "The Role of the Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal Axis in Neuroendocrine Responses to Stress." Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. Les Laboratoires Servier, n.d. Web. 19 May 2016.

3. Dr Helen Webberley MBChB MRCGP MFSRH. “Migraines: Symptoms, Treatments, and Causes.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 22 Nov. 2017.

4. “The Link Between Anxiety & Headaches Explained.” WebMD, WebMD.

5. “Migraine.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 31 May 2019.

6. AHMAD, Asma Hayati, and Rahimah ZAKARIA. “Pain In Times Of Stress.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2015.

7. Senaratne, R, et al. "The prevalence of migraine headaches in an anxiety disorders clinic sample." CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, April 2010.