How Stress Triggers Migraines

Over the years, scientists have discovered how stress adversely effects health, causing a number of serious complications in the body. High blood pressure, heart disease, and even stroke have all been traced back to stress. Recent studies also uncovered how stress can wreak havoc on the heart and the vascular network of the body as well as the brain. These disturbances can be severe and may even result in death.

For migraine sufferers, stress is a difficult hurdle to overcome. A migraine sufferer may be stressed out from having to deal with the aches and pains of migraines, and inversely, stress may trigger the sufferer’s migraines, resulting in a dangerous cycle. 

What Are Migraines?


Migraines are vascular headaches, meaning they are caused by the blood vessels, specifically the ones located in the brain. In fact, it is typically the constriction and then rapid dilation of these blood vessels that actually triggers the migraine. This constriction and dilation is usually caused by a drop in serotonin levels.

The Relationship Between Stress and Migraines

Stress creates excess neurotransmitters in the brain such as:

  • Norepinephrine

  • Adrenaline

  • Dopamine

  • Serotonin

The outpouring of these neurotransmitters is the result of the “fight or flight” response. The constant bombardment of these chemicals cause the most common stress-related illnesses including stroke and high blood pressure. Chronic stress is responsible for the depletion of serotonin which leads to depression and anxiety.

Once the stress is alleviated (or lessened), the brain attempts to recover by significantly reducing the production of these neurotransmitters in an effort to flush the excess. Unfortunately, this leads to an even greater drop in serotonin level, causing dilation of the blood vessels in the brain. These vessels are typically located around the trigeminal nerve and put just enough pressure on the nerve to cause a migraine when dilated.

Other Stress-Related Causes of Migraines 

Depleted neurotransmitters are not the sole cause of a sudden drop in serotonin levels. A lack of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) can also cause a rapid drop in serotonin. CSF is the fluid found in the brain and spinal cord. This fluid is produced in the brain, and it cleanses the brain of free radicals and other cellular trash. It also provides protection by absorbing shocks.

Stress causes tension in the neck muscles, and this can result in compression of the vertebrae of the neck. This compression can severely restrict the flow of CSF to and from the brain, which results in a rapid drop in serotonin levels, causing a migraine.

There are a number of things that trigger migraines, many of which can’t be prevented, such as the weather. But many stress-related migraines can be prevented. Knowing how stress affects the brain can increase the odds that prevention and treatment will be successful.


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