Migraines and anxiety often exist in a symbiotic relationship similar to the classic “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma. Which came first? In a similar vein, does anxiety trigger migraines, or do migraines cause anxiety? My head hurts just thinking about it.
Anxiety and Migraines Coexist
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), researchers have suggested that migraines can precede the onset of anxiety disorders. In fact, studies reveal that lifetime occurrences of anxiety are significantly higher in migraineurs than in the general population. They also found migraines to be common in people who suffer from anxiety disorders. Survey says, based on my experience and current research, that anxiety causes migraines and vice versa.
As a child, I experienced a great amount of anxiety due to a stressful, dysfunctional home environment; yet, I wasn’t officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) until my early 20s. My first classic migraine (migraine with aura), on the other hand, occurred when I was just 11 years old, but I wasn’t officially diagnosed a “migraineur” until my late teens. It would seem that, in my case, anxiety preceded migraine, but not according to my “official” diagnoses. Regardless, I can attest to the fact that the two illnesses coexist.
Anxiety During Migraine
During a migraine, there is palpable anxiety, worry, and fear. Thoughts racing, I find myself fretting over any number of migraine-related woes. How long will it last this time? (Hours? Days?) When will my medication kick in? Will it make me feel more ill than I already do? How many days will I be bedridden and out of commission? How will I get all of my grad school assignments satisfactorily completed and submitted on time? Will I be able to get the housework done this week? Am I letting my husband down? And those are just the immediately pressing worries.
I also become filled with anxiety pondering life’s bigger picture, wondering, Will I ever be healthy enough to maintain a full-time job once I graduate? Will I be able to help support our household financially? Will I graduate on time or at all? Will I be healthy enough to carry and care for a child someday? Will I ever be free from taking daily medication? Will I ever be fully healed?
Anxiety and Migraine-Free Days
Anxiety even finds a way to creep in on those migraine-free days. Even on days that I feel 100%, I find my mind racked with worry. Will I get a migraine today? Is that an aura, or did I just stare into the sun too long? Will eating a certain food (i.e., banana, chocolate, cheese, etc.) trigger an attack? Will I be able to get everything accomplished that I have planned for the day? How long before the next migraine rears its ugly head? Will I be able to make it to the dentist appointment I have scheduled later this week? Will I feel well enough to attend the event to which I’ve already committed? Will I be healthy enough to enjoy the upcoming holiday season?
Such is the seemingly unending vicious cycle of anxiety and migraines. It seems as if I’m stuck on a never-ending rollercoaster of anxiety regardless of how well I’m feeling. It can feel incredibly overwhelming at times, but I have found ways of coping that seem to reduce the anxiety and lessen both the onset and discomfort of migraines.
Natural Ways To Manage/Prevent Anxiety and Migraines
There are numerous ways to manage and overcome anxiety and migraine aside from the obvious — medication. Some people find cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation therapy, meditation, prayer, and/or yoga to be effective methods. I have personally found prayer to be especially helpful. By giving my worry and fear to God, I am able to release the hold that anxiety has on my body and mind.
Exercise is known to be an excellent migraine management and prevention tool. Walking for 30–60 minutes/day has significantly reduced my anxiety, as it allows me to clear my mind and recharge my mental and physical batteries. While I’ve struggled with exercise-induced migraines doing heavy cardio, brisk walking has fared much better.
Dietary changes have been — literally — life-changing, as well. I had already given up most of my known migraine trigger foods, but was reluctant to give up my, oh so sweet Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper; yet, I knew I was only poisoning my body. After drinking nearly a 2-liter of caffeinated diet soda AND several cups of caffeinated coffee EVERY day, a migraine would come on out of nowhere.
I didn’t want to admit what I knew to be true, but after much research on the effects of caffeine and artificial sweeteners, particularly aspartame, I decided to go cold-turkey and have since reduced the number of migraine attacks from 3–4/week to just 1–2/month. I cannot express enough how making this one small dietary change has alleviated so much of my suffering. (I allow myself the occasional Diet Coke, only on special occasions, without consequence).
I have found that a holistic approach works to greatest effect in managing and preventing my anxiety and migraines and would recommend the same for any anxiety/migraine sufferer. Always remember to do so under the supervision of your physician. Medication may be needed to supplement natural treatments, but I am proud to say that I am nearly medication free simply by taking better care of myself in small quantifiable steps. It is possible to reclaim your life and end the cycle of anxiety and migraine. I’m living proof!
How long will this freedom from migraine last? Uh-uh. Not even going there. Time to get out for a nice brisk walk!
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