Anxiety is common when living with migraine

Migraine is the third most common disease on the planet, affecting more than 36 million Americans. One in every four households in the U.S. has at least one person living with migraine, and often more than one person since migraine is genetically linked.

Migraine is a chronic disease with episodic attacks. A migraine attack typically involves moderate or severe headache and can also include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, vomiting, and aura. Someone with migraine has a nervous system that has become highly sensitized. A migraine attack can happen when a combination of internal and external factors or “triggers” reaches a certain level. Triggers can include stress, relaxation after a stressful period, inconsistent sleep patterns, skipping meals, not drinking enough water, exposure to bright or flickering lights, loud noise, strong odors, weather changes and certain foods and drinks. In many women, hormonal changes may trigger an attack. A combination of triggers may set the perfect stage for a migraine attack. For example, a college student may feel stress about finals, and may not get enough sleep and skip some meals while studying, leading to an attack.

Migraine can take a big toll on one’s life. It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to function during a migraine attack, as well as for a period of time before and after an attack. People often miss work and school as well as family, leisure and social activities as a result. This can have negative consequences for work or school especially in the case of chronic migraine (headache on 15 or more days out of the month) where people may have to reduce participation or stop working or going to school altogether. This can lead to concerns about financial stability, limiting achievement in work and school and missing future opportunities.

Being forced to withdraw from social activities due to migraine can leave one feeling isolated, sad and frustrated. All of this can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and frustration.

How are migraine and anxiety related?

Anxiety is common when living with a chronic medical condition, such as migraine. Migraine attacks are unpredictable, debilitating, painful and can have a major impact on people’s lives. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or 18 percent of the population.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or persistent high levels of worry, affects 3 percent of the U.S. population or almost 7 million adults. People with GAD often find it difficult to control worry. About 20 percent of people with migraine and one third to one half of people with chronic migraine experience GAD. Those with migraine may worry about the effect that migraine is having on their life, when the next attack will happen, how their migraine affects loved ones and what the future holds. In addition to GAD, people may also experience other types of anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder.

What are the treatment?

Only one of every three people with migraine or anxiety talk with their health care professional about it, and an even smaller number are diagnosed and receive proper treatment. The good news is that both migraine and anxiety are highly treatable with both medication and behavioral therapies. If you have severe headaches with nausea or sensitivity to light or sound you may have migraine. If you find that it is difficult to control worry, have racing or ruminating thoughts or experience moments of panic you may have an anxiety disorder. Safe and effective treatments are available. Talk with your health care professional or see the links for more information and to find a specialist.

Ready resources

For more information about migraine, anxiety or to find a heath care professional:

American Migraine Foundation:

American Headache Society:

National Headache Foundation:

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

Find relaxation and meditation exercises at

Dawn C. Buse, Ph.D., is a professor of Clinical Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the director of Behavioral Medicine at the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City where she offers cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and relaxation and mindfulness training. She conducts research on migraine, pain and stress and has contributed to more than 140 publications. Follow her on Twitter at @dawnbuse