Stress is the #1 migraine trigger and very few people acknowledge how significant this is (study link). We interpret stress as some sort of rapid emotional event—such as crying—that may immediately trigger a headache or migraine. This interpretation, while accurate, leaves out the most deadly form of stress: chronic stress.
Watch the video for this article above. It’s wonderful!
As a headache sufferer, it’s easy to end up with chronic stress. It starts with a rapid headache trigger such as overworking one day or eating a food trigger. You end up with a headache, and this headache might happen the next day, and the next, and then we begin to worry it will come back tomorrow.
But “worrying is not good for you,” in the words of Alan Watts, “you can’t stop worrying and therefore you get additionally worried that you are worrying. And then furthermore because that is quite absurd and you are mad at yourself because you do it, you are worried because you worry because you worry. That is a vicious circle.” (Youtube link)
This slow buildup is an example of the most deadly form of stress, chronic stress, and is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death (study link). 75% to 90% of all physician-office visits are for stress-related ailments and about half of those ailments are accompanied by headaches (study link).
Why? Chronic stress creates inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s response to injuries or infection, but too much inflammation for too long can be deadly. Headaches may warn us of this deadly condition.
Inflammation is also a contributing factor in the cause of migraine (study links 1, 2) and nearly all headache triggers. For example, allergies create an inflammatory response that may result in snot, sneezing, and itchy eyes. Those with hay fever (a.k.a. allergies) are 4 times as likely to have migraine (study link).
So, stress is not the only way to raise inflammation levels in the body, but it is the largest documented migraine trigger and it’s possible that all other triggers will become dormant if your stress levels are reduced. The question is: “How?”
How do we reduce stress in all of life’s extreme circumstances? The Navy SEALs studied this very question in great depth. Many of the recruits in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training fail out during underwater stress training. It is nearly impossible to control the fear of drowning and the human need for air—but the SEALs did just that (Youtube link History Channel).
They used four techniques:
- Goal setting (“I will survive until lunch”)
- Visualizing (mentally completing tasks before attempting)
- Self talk (positive thought can override stress)
- Arousal control (slow breathing)
These four techniques controlled the brain’s response to stress and increased the training graduation rate from 25% to 33%. Arousal control (slow breathing) may be the most powerful out of the 4 and it’s also one of the most powerful migraine treatments.
The success of slow breathing is monitored in biofeedback where a number of sensors measure heart rate, blood pressure, brain waves, temperature, breathing, and muscle tension. Research from Ohio University found that biofeedback is just as effective as prevention medication (study link). A reduction in migraine frequency was also observed in a 2007 review of over 55 studies and, in addition, the study found an immediate reduction in migraine pain, statistically no different from ergotamines (study link). Slow breathing is both acute and preventative.
According to Harvard researchers you don’t need costly monitoring of biofeedback, because the same results are found in simple relaxation techniques such as breathing (study link).
How do I breathe?
The Navy SEALs found that four-second inhales followed by four-second exhales for just 1 minute can help you succeed in the most physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding conditions. Continuing to control your breathing by focusing on deep inhales and slow, relaxing exhales would also be considered meditation.
If you don’t believe in meditation, you should reconsider. Meditation has recently been found by Harvard researchers to increase the gray matter in the brain that is responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation. The 2011 study found that in eight weeks the brain grew in a positive way (study link).
We don’t know how significant this is—the whole brain growing thing—but we do know that research by John Hopkins University found that meditation provides as much relief from stress as anti-depressants (study link) and a 2012 analysis of 163 studies found that meditations help with negative emotion, anxiety, attention, learning, and memory (study link). Meditation has even shown a 48% reduction in the rates of heart attack, stroke, and death (study link).
And what about headaches and migraines?
Most studies show that meditation, relaxation, or biofeedback techniques produce around a 40% to 60% reduction in headache pain and frequency, with one meditation study showing greater pain reduction than morphine (research link).
A 2014 meditation study on chronic headache sufferers found a greater than 94% reduction in headache severity, duration, & frequency when paired with traditional medications. The control group on the same medications (but no meditation) only found a 36% reduction in headache severity & duration, and a 49% reduction in frequency (study link). The success of meditation is staggering and comes without side effects.
Why does it work so well?
Controlled breathing is proven to reduce the brain’s stress response, which reduces inflammation and relaxes the entire body. Most of us carry around a continuum of stress and don’t realize it. At the end of a long day our muscles are tight, our jaws are slightly clenched, our eyes are a shade off from relaxed, and the entire body is in a state of mild stress. Everyone around us can see it, but us.
Unfortunately, a tense face is a headache trigger that directly affects the trigeminal nerve. This is why Botox is successfully used to relax muscle tension and prevent migraines.
Slow breathing simply stops this cycle and will improve sleep, performance, happiness, and headache health. A deep four-second breath in while sitting with good posture—feeling your chest rise—and a four-second exhale while completely relaxing your face, neck, and chest, will break the constant state of stress and inflammation.
Doing this for one minute any time you feel the slightest bit of stress will help you—and Navy SEALs. I’ve found that deep breathing for ten minutes in the morning has a profound effect on not only daily stress levels for headache prevention, but also on performance levels of every aspect of life. Breathing is a top way to not only reduce migraine pain, but also a top method to eliminate inflammation and prevent migraines.