Migraine and Anxiety: A Multi-Faceted Relationship
By Sarah HackleyóMay 16, 2016

May is Mental Health Month. Itís also a month when, almost without fail, my anxiety starts to skyrocket to levels rarely seen outside of the summer months. Now, then, is as good a time as any to discuss the numerous links between the two.

Many of us are aware that anxiety is one of the most recognized migraine comorbidities. With 50-60% of migraineurs experiencing an anxiety disorder at some point, itís also one of the most common. (This is compared to about 30% of the non-migraine population.) Like almost all comorbidities, however, researchers arenít quite sure how the two are related.

Some people experience anxiety well before their first migraine attack. Others develop an anxiety disorder after migraine disease makes itself known or transforms from episodic to chronic. (Easy to understand when you consider how many of us fight the fear of future attacks.) For some, the two appear to develop almost simultaneously. Recently, however, Iíve discovered an additional facet of the relationship between the two.

Anxiety is, for me, a migraine trigger. And itís a big one. A powerful one. The kind that launches one of those rapid-onset attacks I hate that takes me from fantastic to completely debilitated in fewer than five minutes.

When I get a panic attack, a migraine attack almost always follows. Generally within minutes. Even if I donít get a panic attack, even if what Iím experiencing is a milder form of my anxiety disorder, the kind that makes me feel more and more worried and anxious over the course of an hour or an afternoon, these escalating anxiety levels also trigger a migraine attack Ė nearly 50% of the time.

With a relationship like that, youíd think I would have recognized the trigger for what it was a long time ago. Surprisingly, I didnít. Surprisingly, it took years of experiencing both to tease apart the time line of increasing anxiety levels and/or the onset of a panic attack and the onset of a migraine attack.

Recognizing and understanding this relationship, however, has helped me stave off a fair number of migraine attacks in recent months Ė a reality I hope will continue to help me as I move through what is, for me, the worst part of the year for anxiety. If I can recognize the increase in anxiety and offset it early enough, with meditation or medication, I can reduce the likelihood of a migraine attack.

As with any migraine trigger, this doesnít work all of the time. My migraine attacks are Ė like all of yours Ė triggered by any number of things and often a combination of several. Simply managing one trigger isnít going to ward off all of my attacks. Migraine disease doesnít work that way. Fighting the anxiety, however, is another trick in my bag, and Iím continually thankful for how frequently it works.

If youíre one of the many migraineurs struggling to manage anxiety disorder along with migraine, please know you arenít alone. Also know there are ways to combat the disorder or lessen the symptoms. To learn more, read:

How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Overcome Stress, Anxiety, and Cognitive Distortions

Relaxation and Mindfulness for Migraine Patients Living with Depression and Anxiety

In my experience, the more we know about our personal relationship with any disease or disorder, the better prepared we are to manage it. Hopefully, youíll find something in the above articles that helps you.