Psychological stress can compound the effect of your migraine triggers and push you to your migraine tipping point.

Identifying things that might stress you out will enable you to put various stress coping measures in place.

Between 50% and 80% of migraine sufferers report stress as a migraine trigger. Numerous studies document this.(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)

Lowering stress can lower your migraine threshold so it is important to incorporate stress busting techniques into your life. Try some of these below, bearing in mind that each and every one of these topics could be the subject of a whole book in itself.

Relaxing will allow the body to dissipate stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that are pumped into the body. When you are very relaxed the body releases ‘feel-good’ hormones like serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins.

1. Stress comes in many forms

Researchers differentiate between three major stress types:

  1. Daily – minor stresses of everyday life, mostly surmountable, but which can build up into long term chronic stress
  2. Chronic stress - which is the accumulation of daily stresses over a prolonged period
  3. Severe life stress – major traumatic events like long term abuse, divorce, war

Stress for most is a part of the fast pace of modern living. Work, finances, credit card debt,  mortgages, deadlines, keeping up with the Joneses, breakups, divorce, moving house, interpersonal conflicts, worries about a loved one who is ill are some of the many that we all know.

There are so many more stresses than ever before and even the modern smartphone constantly demanding to be answered can put much more subtle long enduring stress on the modern human.

The ability to light our homes and workspaces has meant that we tend to sleep later than people for whom night lighting is unavailable. This time is often then used to add more stresses to one’s life… staying up late, binge watching TV shows, playing shoot-em-up computer games as a few examples.

There are several ways that stress contributes to migraine. They involve the release of chemicals and the downstream effects.

2. Change your perception of stressors

One of the keys to successfully coping with stress is to develop resilience to it! Researchers find that literally developing a "thick skin" reduces the effects of stress. Those who learn coping mechanisms have much lower levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol in their bodies.

It is important to find what exactly is causing your stress and working to mitigate its effects.

We realise that this is easy to SAY, but more difficult to implement. But that is what the research is telling us. In the case of migraines, there is often considerable outside chronic daily stress involved, and this can often be because of deep personal loss.

3. Get over it! Forgive and forget

Stressors can overwhelm many people. Most people react to stressful events in response to the ‘story’ that they attach to it. Researchers tell that if you release the anger and negative feelings, you will let go of a lot of stress.

If you can move on from a stressful experience, like a divorce, business failings, loss of a loved one etc researchers say that you will have lower levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Indeed a huge amount of emotion can be tied to such events involving traumatic personal upheaval, but if we don’t let them go, the effects of stress can be deleterious to our health, lower your migraine threshold and contribute to migraines.

4. Chronic Stress can cause adrenal fatigue

When multiple stresses continue for a long period, and the person is unable to develop a coping mechanism, it becomes chronic stress. This can lead to adrenal fatigue. Sufferers may be unaware of these stresses but their adrenals have to compensate for each and every stress.(8)

Stress expert Dr Wilson in an article ‘Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue’ states that many such cases are triggered by serious accidents, severe injuries, severe burns.

5. Take time out from work

Dr Wilson says that extended periods of overwork without sufficient time for relaxation can lead to severe life stress and through that, high levels of stress hormones. Learn to say ‘no’ to taking on extra work. If your boss loads more work onto your plate, stress that you can do it but ask what other tasks the boss wants put to the side to allow this task priority. If you keep doing too much, for too long, something will give.

6. Enjoy nature

Take time out in a natural environment. Go to a secluded beach, riverside, countryside, or forest. Hike in the mountains. Embrace nature’s wonders and release the worries that are driving your stress.

7. Eat right!

Poor and irregular eating habits add stress to your body, and if continued over prolonged periods can lead to chronic stress according to Dr Wilson. Eat real food, cut out added sugars, avoid processed foods, excess alcohol, avoid over-eating and heavy carbohydrates. Eat mainly foods from the supermarket boundaries. Remember that any food from a packet, box or a window is probably not a nutritious option, and while perfectly OK on occasion, avoid making this your daily lifestyle.

8. Get some decent sleep

Chronic lack of sleep is a stressor that can have serious downstream consequences. Certain professions are particularly bad for this, mainly shift workers, the worst being that of long-haul aircrew, particularly when flying east-west across multiple time zones.

UK sleep coach and author Nick Littlehales in his book 2016 Sleep encourages us to learn to stop thinking of needing sleep in 8 hours blocks but to think of sleep in 90 minute cycles. Each cycle is a 4 stage process of:

  1. Dozing off
  2. Light sleep
  3. Deep sleep
  4. REM sleep

Littlehales recommends trying to get 5 or 6 cycles of sleep per day, and also to take power naps.(9)

Another important sleep strategy is to ensure that you block out as much light as possible while sleeping. Darkness encourages the body’s pineal gland to produce melatonin, the sleep promoting hormone. Melatonin is produced from serotonin which is considered a happiness hormone and exposure to light suppresses its synthesis and shortens the duration of its production.

9. Stress causes oxidative stress – eat foods with lots of antioxidants

A further major link between stress and migraine is that stress causes oxidative stress.

Whenever the body uses oxygen it creates byproducts, like rust on an iron bar left exposed to water and oxygen. Like when a cut apple turns brown when left exposed to the air. Such byproducts are called oxidants or reactive oxygen species (ROS). Normally antioxidants clear oxidants out and keep the body stable in homeostasis.

When you do not have enough antioxidants to clear out oxidants you are exposed to oxidative stress which causes lots of problems for the body. Eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables will give your body lots of antioxidants to help combat the negative bodily effects of reactive oxygen species (cellular rust).

Common antioxidants include vitamin A, C, E, beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, selenium. Powerful antioxidants come in such plants as ginger, curcumin, coriander (cilantro), citrus fruit and astaxanthin. Consider them as "anti-cellular rust" agents.

10. ROS induces glutamate release – be careful of high glutamate foods

Chronic severe lifetime stress leads to excess reactive oxygen species (ROS) and this leads to a surge of glutamate.(10) Lots of glutamate is needed by brain cells when dealing with a fight or flight situation. If you are a migraine sufferer you may be susceptible to excess glutamate, so you may need to be careful to avoid foods heavy in glutamate. Such foods are MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is found in a huge selection of processed and packaged foods. Also soybeans, high gluten products like wheat, barley, rye and oats may overload you with glutamate.

11. Depleted Magnesium escalates the inflammatory cascade

Magnesium deficiency escalates the inflammatory cascade of chemicals.(11) We know that inflammation causes an immune system response which can lead to migraines. Supplementing with magnesium can be a powerful relaxant for many migraine sufferers. Up to 50% of migraine sufferers were found to be deficient in a study at the New York Headache Center. (ref)

Magnesium supplementation – orally, transdermally and also intravenously – can lead to better sleep and deeper relaxation, reduced inflammation.

12. ROS escalates the inflammatory cascade

Research indicates close associations between ROS and chronic inflammation.(12) Avoid high amounts of inflammatory foods like grains and grain oils which are very high in omega-6. Eat lots of anti-inflammatory foods. Such foods are curcumin (turmeric), seaweeds, avocados, ginger, green leafy vegetables, fresh fruits and veges. Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant.

13. Socialise

Socialising with friends is a great way to reduce stress. Bottling up problems can increase stress. Sharing and vocalising your problems with a close friend can relieve stress.

14. The odd tipple is relaxing

There is plenty of research evidence to show that a relaxing drink after a hard day's work can lower stress, and enhance relaxation. Leading brain expert and Alzheimer's researcher Dr Dale Bredesen suggests that drink should preferably be red wine, and not beer. He presents ample evidence to show that beer and the high consumption of grain products can be a memory killer and a contributor to Alzheimer', particularly in those who are genetically vulnerable.

15. Move yourself

Moving your body is a powerful stress buster. Walking, biking, swimming, moderate jogging, calisthenics, tai-chi are all great ways to release stress.

16. Exercise

Exercise is a powerful stress-buster. Get your heart going for a 30 minute workout 3 or 4 times a week. This can be any exercise that you enjoy whether this be jogging, cross-fit, martial arts, weight-lifting, gymnastics, football, tennis, cycling, windsurfing, squash, Pilates, basketball.

17. Yoga & taichi

Yoga and taichi are great ways to reduce stress, clear the mind and stretch the muscles.

18. Meditate

Meditation is a powerful stress reducer. You can use techniques like transcendental meditation. Or you can listen to a meditation recording where an expert can talk you through relaxing your body and mind.

19. Binaural beats

Music made with binaural beats is very effective at getting you into a relaxed state. Binaural beats music needs to be listened to through a headset. Music into the left ear is played at a slightly different frequency to music in the right ear. For example the music into the left ear is played at a frequency of say 90 hertz and the music in the right ear is played at 100 hertz. The brain starts to resonate a frequency of the difference between the two, in this case 10 hertz. This is the frequency of the alpha brainwave state which is one of relaxed awareness.

20. Long bath

A long bath, particularly one with magnesium sulfate or magnesium chloride flakes is a great way to unwind and let stresses dissipate.

21. Floatation tanks

Floatation tanks are a very effective way to achieve a highly relaxed state. These are tanks filled with about 600kg of epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) allowing you to “hang” in the dense water. This takes physical pressure off the joints, muscles and body and rapidly brings on deep relaxation, slows the pulse rate and literally drains away stress. If the tank is enclosed this reduces outside stimuli and allows the brain to enter a deeply relaxed state. Using a blood pressure monitor, take your readings before entering the tank. Then on exiting after say 40 minutes to an hour. I have seen big drops in blood pressure! Try it for yourself.

22. Sauna and steam bath

A sauna is a great way to unwind and also to clear out toxins through your skin. The modern infrared sauna is even more effective than the traditional sauna where heat alone is the active component of generating the sweat that clears out toxins from your body. In an infrared sauna, the infrared light rays also penetrate the skin at a different frequency to the heat rays of the traditional sauna, giving added and deeper therapeutic effect according to proponents of infrared saunas.

23. Supplements for relaxation

There are some supplements that can aid sleep and relaxation (in addition to the magnesium mentioned above). Check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

  • Valerian root has been used for a long time as a sedative and for sleep treatment.
  • Melatonin is often used as a supplement to assist sleep. It is available in some countries from your local pharmacy without a prescription. However in some countries only a doctor can prescribe this.
  • Serotonin is considered a happiness hormone and is used by some to assist relaxation. (Magnesium is extremely important for the synthesis of serotonin).
  • Tryptophan (also found in chicken meat) is also sometimes used as a supplement.

Chill out to help lower your migraine threshold!

By Kevin the Migraine Researcher
Migraine Escape, Innovative Herbal Products

Further reading


  1. Stress and Migraine. Radat, F. 5, Paris : s.n., May 2013, Revue Neurologique, Vol. 169, pp. 406-412.
  2. Stress as a trigger for headaches: relationship between exposure and sensitivity. Martin, P R, Lae, L and Reece, J. 4, Dec 2007, Anxiety, Stress, Coping, Vol. 20, pp. 393-407. Department of Psychological Medicine, Monash University, Monash Medical Centre, Clayton, Australia.
  3. Stress and migraine interaction. Sauro, K M and Becker, W J. [ed.] Wiley Online Library. 9, Oct 2009, Headache, Vol. 49, pp. 1378-86. University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services, Calgary, AB, Canada.
  4. Post-traumatic stress disorder in episodic and chronic migraine. Peterlin, B L, et al. 4, s.l. : Wiley Online Library, Apr 2008, Headache, Vol. 48, pp. 517-22. Drexel University College of Medicine-Neurology, Philadelphia, PA 19102, USA..
  5. Migraine: Maladaptive Brain Responses to Stress. Nasim , Maleki, Becerra, Lino and Borsook, David. (Supp 2), Oct 2012, Headache, Vol. 52, pp. 102-106. Author Info: Center for Pain and the Brain, Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard Medical School.
  6. Stress and chronic headache. d'Amico, D, et al. s.l. : Springer-Verlag, 2000, Journal of Headache Pain, Vol. 1, pp. S49–S52. C. Besta National Neurological Institute, Milan, Italy.
  7. The association between stress and headache: A longitudinal population-based study. Schramm, S H, et al. 10, s.l. : Sage Journals, Sep 2015 , Cephalalgia, Vol. 35, pp. 853-63.
  8. Clinical perspective on stress, cortisol and adrenal fatigue. Wilson , James L. 2, s.l. : Elsevier Science Direct, May 2014, Advances in Integrative Medicine, Vol. 1, pp. 93–96.
  9. Littlehales, Nick. Sleep, The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps and the New Plan to Recharge your Body and Mind. London : Penguin Random House UK, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-241-97597-8.
  10. Severe Life Stress and Oxidative Stress in the Brain: From Animal Models to Human Pathology. Schiavone, Stefania , et al. 12, s.l. : Mary Ann Liebert, Inc, 2013, Antioxidants and Redox Signalling, Vol. 18. Author info: Dr. Stefania Schiavone, Department of Pathology and Immunology, University of Geneva, Switzerland.
  11. Magnesium-deficiency elevates circulating levels of inflammatory cytokines and endothelin. Weglicki, William B, et al. 2, s.l. : Kluwer Academic Publishers-Springer Link , March 1992, Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, Vol. 110, pp. 169–173. Author info: Departments of Medicine and Physiology, The George Washington University Medical Center, USA.
  12. Upsides and Downsides of Reactive Oxygen Species for Cancer: The Roles of Reactive Oxygen Species in Tumorigenesis, Prevention, and Therapy. Gupta, S C, et al. 11, s.l. : Mary Ann Liebert, Inc, 1 Jun 2012, Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, Vol. 16, pp. 1295-322.
  13. Magnesium, stress and neuropsychiatric disorders. Galland, L. (2-4), 1991-1992, Magnesium Trace Elements, Vol. 10, pp. 287-301.
  14. Galland, Leo and Galland, Jonathan. The Allergy Solution; the Surprising, Hidden Truth about why you are Sick and How to get Well. Carlsbad : Hay House, 2016.
  15. Dean, Carolyn. The Magnesium Miracle. New York : Ballantine Books, Random House, 2014. p. 178. 978-0-345-49458-0.
  16. Alterations in magnesium and oxidative status during chronic emotional stress. Cernak, I, et al. (1), Mar 2000, Magnesium Research, Vol. 13, pp. 29-36. PMID: 10761188; Author info: Military Medical Academy, Belgrade.
  17. Study of the stress response: role of anxiety, cortisol and DHEAs. Boudarene, M, Legros, J J and Timsit-Berthier, m. 2, Mar-Apr 2002, Encephale, Vol. 28, pp. 139-46. Author info: Bat G, N 266, Cité Djurdjura, Ville Nouvelle, Tizi Ouzou 15010, Algérie.
  18. Dehydroepiandrosterone increases synaptosomal glutamate release and improves the performance in inhibitory avoidance task. LHullier, F L, et al. 3, Mar 2004, Pharmacology, biology and behaviour, Vol. 77, pp. 601-6. Departamento de Bioquímica, Instituto de Ciências Básicas da Saúde, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Pôrto Alegre, RS, Brazil.
  19. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and DHEA-sulfate (DHEAS) protect hippocampal neurons against excitatory amino acid-induced neurotoxicity. Kimonides, V G, et al. 4, s.l. : National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 1998, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, Vol. 95, pp. 1852-1857. Author info: Department of Anatomy and ‡Medical Research Council Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  20. Serotonin and migraine: biology and clinical implications. Hamel, E. 11, Montreal : Sage Journals, Nov 2007, Cephalagia, Vol. 27, pp. 1293-300. Author info: Montreal Neurological Institute, Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, McGill University, Montréal, Québec, Canada.
  21. Serotonin and CGRP in Migraine. Aggarwal, Milan , Puri, Veena and Puri, Sanjeev . 2, s.l. : Karger, Apr 2012, Annals of Neurosciences, Vol. 19, pp. 88–94. Author info: Panjab University, Chandigarh, India.
  22. Reactive oxygen species initiate a metabolic collapse in hippocampal slices: potential trigger of cortical spreading depression. Malkov, A, et al. 9, s.l. : Sage Journals, Sept 2014, Journal of Cerebral Bloodflow Metabolism, Vol. 34, pp. 1540-9. Author info: Russian Academy of Sciences, Pushchino, Russia; Institut de Neurosciences des Systèmes, Marseille, France; Kazan Federal University, Russia; Insitute of Biophysics and Cell Engineering, Minsk, Belarus..
  23. Serotonin and migraine: a reconsideration of the central theory. Panconessi, Alessandro. s.l. : Springer-Verlag, 26 June 2008, Journal of Headache Pain, Vol. 9, pp. 267–276.