When I am unable to fully process difficult and stressful feelings, I tend to experience a migraine attack as an accumulative release.

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About 10 years ago, I had a leading role in organizing a large charity fundraising event. As a high school student, I was simultaneously studying for important exams and feeling extremely overwhelmed and stressed.

The day after the event, I experienced my first migraine attack. I then continued to have up to seven a week for the next 3 months.

Over the years, the frequency of my migraine attacks has changed, but I have been able to establish that, like that first bout a decade ago, my attacks are almost always triggered by stress and anxiety.

I’m not alone. About 80 percent of people living with migraine identify stress as a trigger.

It’s not just the presence of stress in my life, but how I cope with it — or don’t — as it arises. When I am unable to fully process difficult and stressful situations, conversations, events, feelings, and emotions that occur over a prolonged period of time, I tend to experience a migraine attack as an accumulative release.

To prevent getting to this point, I’ve been trying and testing some at-home remedies that I have found really help me deal with stress and anxiety better and reduce the frequency of my migraine attacks.

Meditation is widely suggested for stress relief. However, if you already experience anxiety, the idea of sitting still and trying not to think can feel impossible.

If this sounds like you, sound baths might be a good alternative. A sound bath is a form of guided meditation where participants lie in a comfortable position while smooth, calming sounds are played on crystal and metal bowls, gongs, and chimes.

The instruments emit tones of varying frequencies depending on the material and size, creating vibrations that wash over you (hence a “bath”) while you relax and focus on the sounds.

Meanwhile, your subconscious mind can whir and process quietly in the background. As highlighted by a 2017 study in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, the effect is deep mental and physical relaxation that helps reduce tension, anxiety, and depression while increasing spiritual well-being.

Though sound baths work best in person, you can still greatly benefit from virtual sound baths at home with a good pair of earphones.

There are abundant free resources on Instagram. I recommend Jasmine Hemsley’s daily live sound baths and Phyllicia Bonanno’s themed baths (also available on YouTube).

Exercise, in general, is a powerful remedy for managing stress. However, I’ve found there’s something specific about walking and running that can be especially powerful.

Not only is walking and running a great stress reliever, but research shows that doing aerobic exercise can lead to significantly fewer migraine days per month.

In one small study, people who improved their fitness through three aerobic workouts per week experienced less stress, fewer migraine days per month, and less intense attacks.

For me, the focus needed in doing a workout, going to the gym, or following a specific routine requires concentration, while walking or running without a particular destination produces a zoned-out effect. This gives my mind space and time to work through thoughts and feelings more subconsciously.

The fact that my body and mind are both moving at a similar pace also prevents that paralyzing mental exhaustion that can occur when I’m too physically still for my anxious thoughts.

I recommend creating a playlist of songs you know and love to focus on and sing along with in your head.

If you find you’re too caught up in your thoughts, try mindful running by focusing on your breathing and surroundings as you move.

Exercise can be a migraine trigger for some, so be sure to ease in and monitor the effects that it has on your symptoms.

Similar to running or walking, there’s something soothing about mundane, mindless tasks that allow me to tune out my stress and work through internal difficulties.

What’s more, research suggests a clean space can help you feel more relaxed and stable.

I find that vacuuming and washing up are particularly calming chores due to their repetitiveness, but have a go at whatever you’ve been meaning to tackle for a while.

Put on a lighthearted podcast, tune into the radio, or play your favorite karaoke songs and sing along.

While finding opportunities to zone out can be really effective in dealing with stress, it might sometimes be necessary to face things more head on.

Just as writing a to-do list is a productive way to approach errands or work projects, it may be equally beneficial to jot down a list of difficult feelings on stressful days.

Naming your emotions means you have to bring bottled up emotions to the forefront of your mind and actively tackle them.

What’s more, the act of writing them down can help externalize jumbled thoughts and introduce some sense of control over your emotions rather than letting them overwhelm you.

You might want to write down just one word that expresses a feeling — such as angry, sad, or anxious — or a more detailed expression of your state of mind.

You could also go a step further and journal about your feelings, making this the task on your to-do list. Journaling is a great therapeutic technique that is found to relieve emotional difficulties.

You don’t have to go it alone

Migraine attacks that are triggered by stress can sometimes feel unavoidable, particularly during a pandemic, where so much is out of our control.

These simple activities allow my mind to subconsciously process the stress in my life and tackle it head on. However, they won’t work for everyone.

For many people, it’s best to seek the help of a therapist or psychiatrist for coping with stress, anxiety, and other mood disorders. It’s OK to need some extra help with therapy and medications, and you don’t need to deal with mental health issues alone.


Molly Lipson is a freelance journalist and photographer covering politics, culture, and health. She is also an activist for the abolition of the prison industrial complex and the systems that uphold it.