As I sit down to write this, I am experiencing a little migraine and anxiety myself. Over the last few weeks I’ve been feeling vertigo spins just before I wake up in the morning nearly every day. I’ve also felt pressure changes and wisps of wind going through my right ear. These are not normal VM symptoms for me. It occurred to me this morning that these are the exact symptoms I was experiencing just before my first vestibular migraine attack that left me housebound for months leaving me worrying that another big event is coming. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the fear of ending up as bad off as I once was. The thought is terrifying & makes me wonder if everyone who’s been chronic has the same worry.
Anxiety and fear often tag along for those of us with migraine. According to the American Migraine Foundation, about 50% of people with migraine also experience anxiety. Some people had anxiety before their migraine diagnosis while others developed it long after and it’s no wonder because chronic migraine fills us with anxious thoughts that can hold us captive and leave us worrying about seemingly endless topics.
Here are just a few worries that we often see in the Migraine Strong Facebook group. Will I feel this bad forever? What kind of side effects will I experience taking this medication? Will my medication stop working for me? What will happen if I go off of my medication, will all of my symptoms come back? Will I be able to keep my plans with my friends this weekend? If I eat this food, will it trigger an attack? Where will I be the next time vertigo hits? When will the next attack happen? What is this weird symptom…this can’t be migraine and SO many more! There is so much to worry about while managing a chronic illness. Anxiety seems to hold hands with migraine.
Anxiety is not just worry and fear, it’s also avoidance that prevents us from doing the things we need and want to do. It shackles us to our couches pleading for us to avoid everything that creates those worrying thoughts. Sometimes even keeping us from doing the things we love.
One theory about why so many of us with migraine experience anxiety is because migraine brains are hyper responsive to stimulus. Lights, sounds, movement, scents etc. feel stronger, louder and agitating for many of us. Especially for those of us with chronic migraine. It takes our brains more effort to filter stimulus out and place it into the background. Stimulus that is easily disregarded by typical brains is uncomfortable for us. We will see the flickering overhead light over and over and over, never being able to physically ignore it. So migraine is constantly whispering in our ear, begging us to stay home in the safety of our couches to avoid uncomfortable stimulus instead of joining the real world.
While Migraine Strong writes about the latest in migraine treatments, this is not medical advice. We are patient educators and all information you read should be discussed with your doctor.
The physical effects of anxiety
Anxiety doesn’t only create psychological effects. It has physical effects as well. When you have fear of migraine pain or spinning vertigo that comes with vestibular migraine attacks, that threat floods our brains with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Our muscles tighten, our mouth gets dry, our hands and feet get cold, yet we begin to sweat. It increases our heart rate & blood pressure and causes us to hold our breath and begin shallow breathing. This inhibits our parasympathetic nervous system & drops us into fight or flight mode and a state of stress. It’s vital to reach for strategies to help soothe and calm us so that we move back into our cerebral cortex, the upper, logical thinking area of our brains. Then we can begin to emotionally regulate and flood our brains with happy endorphins and oxytocin and reduce our levels of harmful hormones.
The good news is there are so many strategies to reach for that soothe and calm us.
Natural anxiety treatments
- Slow Deep Breathing– Your breath and your mind are connected. When we’re feeling anxious we breathe quick, shallow breaths that trigger a state of stress. Slow intentional breathing sends a message to your brain that you’re ok. If you feel anxiety coming on, getting control over your breath is one of the most important strategies you can implement to minimize its negative effects. If you google it, you’ll find many breathing strategies to try, but here’s an easy technique to try. Inhale deeply through your nose until you can’t take in anymore air, pause and slowly exhale releasing all of the air. Visualize yourself calm and as you inhale think “I am” as you exhale think “peace”. Repeat until you feel calm. Stopping activities and focusing on your breath will naturally allow your mind to settle.
- Forest bathing– Connecting with nature has been proven to increase your sense of well-being and sunlight has been proven to improve your mood. Together they create a recipe for happiness. Our members enjoy gardening, long walks (the greener the better) and swimming in the sea.
- Grounding– Simply means putting your body in direct contact with the earth. Place your bare skin on soil, grass, water, sand or rock. Take your shoes off and go outside. Studies show it reduces pain and improves sleep leading to overall better emotional health.
- Time with animals – I am a firm believer that animals share their joy with us. Spending time with them is proven to lower blood pressure and help you to feel calm and relaxed. So go get your snuggling on and kick migraine anxiety to the curb.
- Exercise – Try using your anxiety as fuel and let it be your momentum to begin working out. There is no better way to burn off excess anxious energy. All movement is beneficial and helps to stabilize hormones. I find yoga and using resistance bands are perfect for easing anxiousness as they increase focus and provide deep pressure relief. For VMers, movement will have the added benefit of helping your vestibular system begin to compensate.
- Change your focus – Scrub something down, finish a home project you’ve been putting off, get out in the garden, knit, crochet, quilt, try new arts & crafts, cook dinner or bake something yummy. Color in adult coloring books to engage in something active and to help focus your thoughts. There is intrinsic joy in being productive.
- Acupressure Mats – Help promote relaxation, increase circulation, relieve pain, ease stress and reduce tension. We talked earlier about how responsive migraine brains are to stimulus. Acupressure mats will help with sensory weighting by focusing your sensory system on just the mat while tuning all other stimulus out.
- Seek Deep Pressure – Weighted blankets work by providing deep pressure which is soothing and calming similar to getting a big hard hug. You can also purchase weighted lavender scented or unscented neck wraps that can be heated or cooled to drape across your shoulders to provide light pressure. A free way to achieve deep pressure relief is to place both of your feet flat on the ground. If you have a loved one nearby have them gently press down on your shoulders. You can also try wall push-ups for deep pressure relief as well.
- Create a Mantra – This strategy always makes me think of the movie What About Bob. Remember how he continually repeated “I feel good, I feel great, I feel wonderful?” If you’ve never seen the movie check it out because it’s pretty funny and giggling is an anxiety reliever too! Back to the point, inner dialog is important. When negative thoughts creep in, go to your mantra for positivity and to crowd those negative thoughts out. When I was feeling my worst and losing hope, my mantra was I am healthy, I am strong, I feel good! Fake it until you make it is darn good advice.
- Stand in the Power Pose – Stand tall with your feet apart, your hands on your hips, your chest puffed out and your chin up. Think Wonder Woman or Super Man and hold that power pose for just 2 minutes to decrease your stress level and increase your testosterone. Higher levels of testosterone lead to increased feelings of confidence.
- Use squishy fidgets – We are meant to move. If you’re feeling uneasy about being stuck in one place during a long meeting, flight, car ride etc. fidgets can help focus your attention and there are many marketed to and appropriate for adults. I buy loads of these for the early intervention work I do with little ones, but they work for us too. The office favorites are stretchy noodles and slow rise squeeze balls.
- Gratitude Journaling – Writing can help validate and express your feelings. Writing down the things that bring you joy will help you to recognize all of the things that are going right for you. Have you ever heard the phrase ’emotions not expressed in words make the organs weep’? I mean who wants weepy organs, certainly not us right, so get your journal and those emotions out!
- Music – Sound has an amazing way of calming us. Try classical music, music that includes binaural beats (found easily on YouTube) or music from your teen years to lift your mood. Search Anti-Anxiety Cleanse – Stop Overthinking, Worry & Stress on YouTube…it’s beautiful. Group drumming is an amazing anxiety reliever as well. Search for and attend drum circles in your area or better yet combine exercise and music and have a living room dance party!
- Meditation & The Calm App – Guided meditations, sleep stories, breathing programs and relaxing music will help increase mindfulness. The act of mindful awareness allows you to experience each moment in real time rather than thinking about the fear of what might happen next. Calming scents like lavender can add additional relaxation. Many of our members also use the app Insight Timer as well. Relaxation techniques guided by these apps will help your nervous system shift from adrenaline soaked fight or flight mode to a calm sense of well-being called rest and digest.
- Unfollow negative people and pages on social media – Surrounding yourself with positive people who care about your well-being will improve your health both physically and mentally.
Members of Migraine Strong also shared a variety of strategies that help to relax them. Ideas included reading inspirational quotes and books, prayer, talking with a trusted friend, aromatherapy and visiting their favorite store. They also lean on the notice and name technique.
Our brains are not wired for us to not feel well all the time and the effects of ignoring it will begin to take a toll if we don’t pay attention to our emotional health. If the lifestyle changes mentioned above are not enough, consider seeking help from a medical professional. Clinical psychologists who specializes in anxiety or reputable counselors are great resources. I’ll list a few more medical interventions to discuss with your doctor below.
Medical intervention and supplements
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy – Research shows this is by far the most useful treatment for anxiety. It can help you determine why anxiety is happening and teach you tools to modify negative thoughts to help you manage symptoms & empower you to feel more in control over them.
- Medication – Can be helpful in reducing severe anxiety to a level low enough for lifestyle changes to be effective. Medication is best when used short term and reduced & stopped slowly over time.
- Acupuncture – The practice of inserting small needles into pressure points could be effective in improving symptoms of anxiety. Clinical trials examining acupuncture for anxiety has shown some positive results.
- Himalayan Salt Rooms – Some people claim that spending an hour in these salt filled rooms that are rich in minerals and higher oxygen levels has a calming effect comparable to spending a week by the seaside. I keep a Himalayan salt lamp on my desk at work.
- Biofeedback – The Mayo Clinic defines biofeedback as techniques you can use to learn to control your bodies functions like heart rate, perspiration and peripheral temperature. There is good evidence that biofeedback can relax muscles and ease stress which reduces the severity of symptoms of anxiety and also head pain.
- CBD, Cannabidiol – This anxiety treatment is growing in popularity and quickly becoming a widely favored remedy to help ease anxiousness and aid in relaxation. For more information, consider joining the Facebook group Migraine Buds Chat.
- Magnesium – Many forms of magnesium are naturally calming. Our favorite is magnesium glycinate. Soaking in a warm bath with magnesium chloride flakes is a great way to calm and relieve pain as well.
- Ashwagandha – Also referred to as natures Xanax, this medicinal herb may be effective at lowering symptoms of anxiety and stress. I like Pure Encapsulations brand ashwagandha.
I can’t close without acknowledging the lack of understanding in the medical community about just how often migraine causes symptoms other than head pain such as dizziness, vertigo, ataxia, temporary loss of speech or motor function. This leaves some doctors to declare that emotional factors must be the trouble. As migraine advocates, we strongly believe that we should fight hard against that stigma! While anxiety, stress and stress let-down can certainly trigger an attack, a trigger is very different from a cause. Anxiety is not the root cause of migraine as there is currently no known root cause. If you hear your doctor claim that anxiety is the root cause of your migraine, kindly ask them if they think people worry themselves into other neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and autism? Or is migraine the only neurological condition created by stress? Insert eye roll.
Lastly, please know that you are never alone in your illness. Migraine Strong is truly filled with many positive, compassionate, like-minded people who are committed to feeling their best. If that sounds like you, come on over to our Facebook group to find your tribe.