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The Connection Between Stress, Migraine, and the Nervous System

Migraine is not just a headache; they are complex neurological events that can be profoundly influenced by stress. Understanding the interplay between stress, the nervous system, and migraines can unlock new pathways for management and relief. As a specialist headache physiotherapist, I’ve observed the critical role stress plays both as a trigger and a sensitiser of the nervous system, particularly concerning the vagus nerve’s function. Let’s delve into how stress affects this process and explore effective strategies for mitigation.

The Connection Between Stress, Migraine, and the Nervous System


Stress is a well-known trigger for migraine. It initiates a cascade of physiological responses in the body, activating the “fight or flight” system. This response, while useful in acute situations, can become detrimental when constantly engaged. Chronic stress can lead to a heightened sensitivity of the nervous system, making it more reactive to migraine triggers.

The vagus nerve, a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s “rest and digest” system), plays a significant role in this context. It acts as a counterbalance to the stress response. However, when stress is persistent, the function of the vagus nerve can be compromised, leading to an imbalance that favours a more sensitised and reactive nervous system.

How Stress Sensitises the Nervous System

Stress, especially when chronic, can lead to a state of heightened neurological sensitivity, known as central sensitisation. This state means that the nervous system becomes more likely to interpret various stimuli as threats, leading to an increased frequency and intensity of migraine attacks. The sensitised nervous system can amplify pain signals, making migraine more debilitating.

The Role of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is instrumental in moderating the body’s stress response. It helps to control heart rate, reduce inflammation, and promote relaxation by stimulating the “rest and digest” response. When the vagus nerve’s function is diminished due to stress, these regulatory mechanisms are less effective, potentially leading to an increased vulnerability to migraine.

Strategies for Managing Stress and Its Impact on Migraine

As a specialist headache physiotherapist, I advocate for a multifaceted approach to managing stress and its effects on migraine:

  1. Vagus Nerve Stimulation: Simple practices such as deep, slow breathing exercises, gentle yoga, and meditation can stimulate the vagus nerve, enhancing the body’s relaxation response.

  2. Regular Physical Activity: Engaging in regular, moderate exercise can help reduce stress levels and decrease the sensitivity of the nervous system. Exercise also stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

  3. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help manage stress and reduce the frequency and severity of migraine by calming the nervous system.

  4. Lifestyle Modifications: Identifying and minimising exposure to known migraine triggers, ensuring regular sleep patterns, and maintaining a balanced diet can help manage stress and reduce migraine occurrences.

  5. Professional Support: Working with a specialist headache physiotherapist can provide tailored exercises and therapies designed to reduce muscle tension and correct postural issues that may contribute to migraine frequency.


Stress is a potent trigger and sensitiser for migraine, largely due to its impact on the nervous system and the vagus nerve’s function. By adopting a holistic approach that includes physical therapies, lifestyle changes, and stress management techniques, individuals suffering from migraine can find significant relief. Embracing these strategies not only addresses the physiological aspects of migraine but also empowers individuals to take control of their stress and its impact on their health.

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