I’ve been sharing over the past few weeks how I suffered from a hormonal imbalance that restarted my migraine misery after my daughter was born. A number of factors contribute to hormone dysfunction and this week I’m going to talk about stress.
Blaming your symptoms on stress may seem like the most overused excuse in the medical community. But when left unchecked, stress can wreak havoc on the body. When I refer to stress, I am referring to psychological stress, i.e. the nagging worry and anxiety that plagues our everyday lives.
The stress response (also known as fight-or-flight mode) is useful from an evolutionary perspective so that we could be very effective at running away from imminent dangers, like a tiger that wanted to eat us. When this happens, your heart rate and breathing speed up and stress hormones like cortisol start pumping through your bloodstream, preparing your body to face the threat. Once you’re safe and sound again, it’s meant to get turned off.
However, these days more of us are spending in a never-ending cycle of stress, constantly concerned about money, job performance, health or relationships. It has no defined end, so the stress hormones that previously would have been occasionally released in short bursts are now floating around in our bloodstream constantly. And guess which part of the body coordinates the stress response? The hypothalamus!
If you’re chronically stressed, it means you’re chronically over-working your hypothalamus, which is why stress is a powerful trigger for migraines. You, therefore, have to find a reliable method to relieve stress and incorporate it into your daily routine.
So, what does stress have to do with hormones? To put it simply, if you’re constantly over-producing cortisol, you’re inhibiting the body’s resource to produce progesterone, a key sex hormone. Again, from an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense because if your body thinks you’re in imminent danger, it doesn’t make sense to produce sex hormones. But we get into trouble when we never shut off the stress and therefore never give our body the chance to catch up in making progesterone (this is what happened to me).
It would be great if somehow we could avoid all of life's stressors, but that’s just not realistic (or desirable). But what we can do is learn tools and techniques to handle our stress better. Here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Learn to say no
First, let’s take an audit of what you’ve got on your “plate.” Most of us are over-committed and we can’t seem to stop ourselves from saying yes to new things – whether it’s agreeing to help with your kid’s school trip or taking on a new project at work. But have you ever tried writing down all the things you’re responsible for? If the list is shocking to you, then maybe it’s time to cut back on your commitments. And maybe it’s time to start using a little word more frequently: no! But politely, of course…
Meditation or just simple deep breathing exercises might seem like an overly simplistic way to reduce stress. But even spending as little as 5 minutes per day has been proven to have a profound impact on your health.
The reason is simple: mindful breathing helps shut off our fight-or-flight response and activate the rest, relax and digest response. When the latter response is dominant, your breathing slows, your heart rate drops, your blood pressure lowers as the blood vessels relax and your body is put into a state of calm and healing.
So how do you get started? You can use an app like Headspace to help guide you through the short sessions. Or you could start off on your own by doing a simple breathing exercise where all you have to do it make your inhale shorter than your exhale. Try this:
· Sit still and tall somewhere comfortable
· Set the timer for five minutes
· Inhale for a count of two
· Hold breath for count of one
· Exhale gently for count of four
Repeat until the timer goes off. Eventually, you can increase the counts from 2-4 to 4-6 or 6-8 and so on. Just remember the exhale has to be longer than the inhale!
3. Get Moving
Exercise is incredibly beneficial for migraine sufferers. It is also one of the best ways to burn off stress hormones. Get exercise in any way that’s fun for you. Run, dance, ride, swim, stretch or skip. Yoga is particularly great because it combines movement with breathing and signals to the body that it’s time to slow down.
4. Practice gratitude
The practice of being grateful not only makes you happier, it has been proven to develop a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure. That’s because no matter how hard life gets if we focus on the positive things you have in your life, you won’t stress as much. You can practice being grateful by simply writing one thing you’re grateful for on a piece of paper before you go to bed. Or at nightly dinners with family, you can go around the table and each say what you’re grateful for. Personally, I use “The Five-Minute Journal”, which is an incredibly helpful guide to start and end each day with gratitude.
5. Take a bath
This one shouldn’t be hard to try! Add the following ingredients to a very hot bath: 2 cups of Epsom salt (which contains magnesium, the relaxation mineral), a half-cup of baking soda (which promotes an ideal pH for healing, detoxification, and optimal cellular function) and 10 drops of lavender oil (which lowers cortisol). Soak for 20 minutes.
Bonus: for double-relaxation, try meditating while taking a bath!
6. Plan tomorrow
If you’re to-do list often haunts you as you go to bed, forcing you to anxiously stare blankly at the ceiling rather than falling asleep, you should consider planning as much for tomorrow. Try these two tactics:
· Take five minutes each night to write down your to-dos for tomorrow. And by write down, I mean actually write it down on a piece of paper (not on your phone or computer).
· Prep for your morning routine the night before. Pick out your outfit; make sure your clothes are ironed; have your breakfast ingredients chopped and ready to go; pack your lunch. This way when you get out of bed you can calmly get yourself ready to tackle the day.
7. Support network
Surrounding yourself with people who genuinely support you is one of the most important determinants of psychological well-being. If you have good friends in your life, make sure to prioritize getting together with them. If you need more support in your life, think about your favorite hobbies and go find other people that love it too! Whether you love running, photography or knitting, it’s easier than ever to find others that share your passion and want to spend their time doing the things they love.
If you can’t seem to lower your stress on your own, it might take some outside help to get you there. In that case, I highly recommend talking to a therapist who can help pinpoint the source of your stress and recommend tips specific to you to reduce your stress levels. Ask around for referrals for a good therapist – it could be life changing!
Do you need help managing your stress and keep your migraines under control? If so, please reach out to me so we can talk about how to tackle that and get you migraine free!
I hope you have a migraine-free day!