How Stress Feeds Migraines: & Something You Can Do About It

The American Migraine Foundation1 states that “stress is a trigger for migraine in almost 70% of people, and one study revealed that 50-70% of people had a significant association between their daily stress level and their daily migraine activity.”

Whether you suffer from headaches, backaches, joint/muscle aches or something else, chronic pain has a way of layering stress on top of itself: like everyone else, you’re dealing with the stressors of work and daily life; on top of that, you have the stress of being in pain and its effects—such as wondering if it will ever stop; seeing doctors / taking medicines / getting treatments; expending energy to “power through it” or feeling resentful at having to rest when work is piling up2. Essentially any kind of chronic pain increases stress, and stress increases chronic pain. It’s hard to break out of the loop. So, how to reduce stress naturally?

Gary Keil, in his article titled “Chronic Pain and Leadership”3, says it beautifully: “when pain hits it is wonderfully designed to completely overwhelm every other system.” This means the efficiency and effectiveness of our mind-body systems naturally decrease due to pain. Chronic pain may impact you physically: e.g. sitting in a chair in a 2-hour meeting might become unbearable. It’s also mentally distracting: it can affect one’s memory and the ability to concentrate, not to mention take a toll on our overall mood. You might require time off from work (as do 36 million others), or contribute to the $299-325 billion loss in productivity.4 So, it’s important from a career and leadership perspective to remain pain-free, or at least to properly “discharge” pain created or aggravated by our stressors.

Let me introduce Noelle, a former client who came to see me because she was interested in reducing the intensity of migraines, which she had “as long as I can remember.” I learned that Noelle worked a PART-time job from home, which required about 60 hours of her time per week. Yes, you heard that correctly—SIXTY. She had 2 teenage children, and her husband traveled most days of the week. She wanted non opioid pain relief.

After a week, Noelle came back to me nearly speechless. She said, “that may be the first week ever where I didn’t have a migraine. And when I felt like one might come on, I took a break and did what you told me to do.”

Photo credit: Yoga Journal

Do you want to know what I told her to do?

Among other things, I suggested she do a variation of this movement and breathing practice:

  • Observe: Stand up comfortably, aligning your feet underneath your hips. Notice how your neck and shoulders feel; notice your overall posture. Close your eyes and notice your breathing. You don’t need to change anything: we’re just establishing a baseline.

  • Move:

    • Place your hands behind your lower back, with the palms facing away from your body. Allow the chest to open slightly.
    • On an inhalation, raise your right arm forward, up, then out to the side as necessary to keep the shoulder relaxed with the arm overhead.
    • On an exhalation, reverse that movement, returning the hand/arm to its starting point. Simultaneously turn your head to the opposite side (away from the moving arm), gently bringing your chin toward your shoulder.
    • The next time you inhale, take the left arm up as you bring your head back to center. When you exhale, bring the left arm/hand to the starting position, simultaneously turning your head to the right.
    • Repeat this entire sequence 3-6 times, trying to make all movements begin / end simultaneously (e.g. the head is turned as much as is comfortable at the same time the hand/arm lands behind the back; the head returns to center at the same time as the arm is lifted to its highest point overhead, etc.)

  • Refine: Make your breath at least 4 seconds long on both inhalation and exhalation. If you can make it longer, great, but keep the breath even. The longer the breath, the slower you will move.

  • Observe: Cease the movement and just stand there. Notice your neck, your shoulders, your posture, and your breathing.

Why Can This Work?

Headaches have a few typical causes: a very common cause is tension in the neck and shoulder areas. This is because it’s where many of us carry our stress. If we can move and loosen up these areas, there’s a good chance the pain will subside or at least decrease. The second is our breathing: when we’re busy and feeling stressed, many of us hold our breath…or, our breath becomes short and shallow. By timing the movements with a longer, even breath, you’re engaging your parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of your “fight or flight” response). In general, I find that doing some sort of physical movement coordinated with the breath is easier to access than say, sitting on a cushion and trying to meditate. It’s an easier entry point to affecting the breath.

To close out Noelle’s story: soon after, she recognized her 60-hour/week part time job was not working for her. She left that job. Now that her kids are older, she’s back working full time at a large Information and Technology Services company.

Next time we’ll talk about Dennis, his chronic back pain, and how incorporating mind-body wellness techniques helped him!


  1. American Migraine Foundation
  2. Headache Help.Org
  3. Chronic Pain & Leadership
  4. Chronic Pain Statistics: Facts, Figures And Research


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