Trying to separate and sort through the connections between migraine and anxiety is a little like trying to determine the age-old conundrum about the chicken and the egg. Migraine and anxiety are closely linked, although scientific studies have yet to pin point exactly what’s going on in the body and brain to explain exactly why the two conditions often walk side by side.
Does anxiety trigger migraine pain, or does the pain (or anticipating the pain) cause anxiety? In practical terms we could also, perhaps, consider whether knowing the answer to the question is really important. Just knowing that the two are linked may go some way towards helping sufferers deal with the dual challenge.
It helps to think about anxiety and migraine as two separate conditions, and treat them both individually. It also helps to realize that it may not be anxiety that’s directly triggering a migraine, but may instead be the physical symptoms of anxiety that are the triggers.
How Anxiety Can Lead to Migraine
Feeling anxious can set us up for a migraine in several ways by disrupting our normal lifestyle patterns and habits. For instance, when you’re anxious you may:
- Comfort eat - leading to a more unhealthy diet and the consumption of foods you know you really should stay away from.
- Drink more caffeine or alcohol - both of which can trigger migraine in some people.
Feeling anxious can also lead to:
- Higher blood pressure - temporary high blood pressure isn’t dangerous in itself (unless other, underlying conditions are present), but a temporary spike can be enough to trigger a migraine.
- Adrenaline surges - neurotransmitters in the brain are known to play a part in migraine, and the natural physical response to sudden fear, panic or anxiety is a rush of adrenaline.
- Poor sleep - it’s hard to have a restful night when you’re anxious. Migraine sufferers are especially susceptible to changes in sleep patterns, so it could be that poor sleep is triggering migraine rather than feeling anxious over not sleeping. This vicious cycle can be especially hard to break.
How Migraine Leads to Anxiety
Intense, acute pain that can last from several hours to several days naturally causes anxiety and fear in many patients. It’s why some of us fear going to the dentist, for instance. It’s not that we’re scared of sitting in a chair and opening our mouths, it’s the anticipation of pain we can’t control that makes us fearful.
Coping with all the symptoms that go with migraine, from heightened sensitive to light and sound, nausea and vomiting, along with disabling pain, is exhausting. As mentioned already, lack of sleep increases the risk of anxiety, which in turn leads to stress and more migraine.
Some studies have shown that anxiety can be a symptom of migraine by itself. Chemical changes in the brain that can trigger migraine can also trigger anxiety, so you may notice an increase in anxiety levels even before you notice a migraine coming on. It can be impossible to determine whether the migraine caused the anxiety, or vice versa.
Avoiding Anxiety Migraines
Because migraine is a complex condition with may different triggers and causes, it’s important to include your doctor in any thoughts you may have regarding your personal migraine causes. If anxiety is a feature of your migraine pattern, there may be some specialist help available. Continue taking migraine medication, but also seek out ways to reduce feelings of anxiety. Small lifestyle changes may help:
- Exercise more - studies have shown that exercising briskly several times a week is beneficial in many ways. It boosts the immune system, counteracts feelings of depression, and leads to restful sleep. Finding ways to reduce your migraine frequency could have the secondary effect of cutting down on anxiety.
- Maintain a healthy diet - make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Some people find that drinking a glass of water at the outset of a migraine episode is as helpful as taking over the counter medication. Keeping an eye on your diet through mindful eating also helps you steer clear of known triggers.
- Learn deep relaxation techniques - if you can call on methods of deliberately relaxing your mind and body during moments of anxiety, you may be able to ward off physical or emotional tension that can lead to migraine.
Anxiety and migraine are two separate conditions that can make each other worse. By treating each individually, while still recognizing their woven relationship, you may succeed in reducing the effects of both.