The Relationship Between Migraines and Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Multiple studies have found that not only does having migraine put you at a higher risk of developing depression and/or an anxiety disorder like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but migraines are more common in those who have these mental health diagnoses as well. This may already be obvious to you, as living with migraine can take an obvious mental toll. But, if you've been unable to determine all the contributions to your migraine struggles, it can shed light on a possibility you haven't yet considered.

Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric conditions in the United States, affecting more than 18 percent of the adult population each year. Generalized anxiety disorder, characterized by excessive and persistent worry accompanied by physical symptoms, affects an estimated 3.1 percent of these adults. It is not uncommon that it occurs along with depression.

The Migraine-GAD Connection

While the connection between migraine and anxiety disorders has been well-established, the link between GAD and migraine specifically hasn't gotten as much attention. Here's what is known so far:

  • Chronic headaches and migraines are often a symptom of an anxiety disorder, particularly GAD.
  • The anxiety disorders that have shown the strongest association with migraine are GAD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
  • Studies have shown that people with GAD may be more likely to develop migraines and that those with migraines may be at a higher risk for GAD.
  • Untreated anxiety disorders such as GAD may contribute to shifting from episodic migraine (fewer than 15 migraines per month) to chronic migraine (15 or more migraines per month).
  • Having both GAD and migraine increases your risk of having major depression even more than either condition by itself. 
  • People who have both migraine and GAD are likely to have an increased sensitivity to their symptoms and their head pain tends to be more severe.
  • Migraine and GAD have some similar symptoms, sometimes making it difficult to know which symptom is caused by which issue. They can both involve sleep problems, nausea, and dizziness.

A 2017 Canadian population health survey showed that 6 percent of people with migraine had experienced GAD in the past 12 months, compared with only 2.1 percent of those without migraine. This study confirms the findings of previous research regarding the strong association between migraine and GAD.

Experts still don't know exactly how or why these two conditions are related, but one possibility is that people who suffer from them may share a common genetic predisposition to both conditions.

Treatment for Migraine and GAD

If you have both migraine and GAD, treatment may involve one or more methods, depending on your individual needs. Medication and/or psychotherapy are the two go-tos when you have both of these conditions.

Medications

Your doctor may prescribe a medication that can help both your migraine and GAD. Options include anti-anxiety medications like benzodiazepines and beta blockers, as well as tricyclic antidepressants.

Additionally, a 2019 study looked at the effects of Botox (onabotulinumtoxinA) on chronic migraine, depression, and anxiety after a treatment every 12 weeks for 9 cycles in 373 people. The researchers found that not only did the treatments decrease the frequency of migraines, but after 108 weeks, 81.5 percent of patients also found significant improvement in their anxiety symptoms, with 78 percent reporting notable relief from their depression symptoms as well.

Psychotherapy

There are a number of different kinds of psychotherapy out there, but cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has the most data supporting its use in migraine and GAD.

Talk to your doctor about which treatment options might be best for you. Though one medication might be enough to treat both your GAD and your migraine, it's possible that you'll need different medications to manage all of your symptoms, as well as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

How to Cope

While you probably can't completely eliminate your migraines, you can take some steps that may help minimize their frequency and /or severity, such as:

  • Get enough sleep. Anxiety may interfere with your sleep, which can make you more prone to migraines. Conversely, migraines may interfere with your rest, which can make your anxiety worse. Getting treatment for both conditions should help you catch the necessary amount of Zzzs at night.
  • Reduce stress. Stress is a common trigger for migraine, so try to reduce stress in your life by learning and practicing relaxation techniques and delegating tasks. This should also help you manage your symptoms of GAD.
  • Manage pain. Ask your doctor how to manage your migraine pain. Chronic pain may worsen your anxiety if it's left unchecked.
  • Stay healthy. Eat a balanced diet, drink plenty of water, and be active. Simple, basic, healthy habits will at least ensure that you're not contributing to your anxiety or migraine through choices such as excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine or inactivity.
  • Look for distractions. Distractions can help with both migraines and GAD. When you're in pain or feeling anxious, look for people, things, or situations that can help distract you from your distress.

    A Word From Verywell

    If you think you might have GAD, be sure to talk to your doctor about getting diagnosed. It's important to address underlying anxiety because treating GAD can also help reduce the severity and/or frequency of your migraine. Plus, untreated anxiety can turn occasional migraines into chronic ones. Be sure to keep in touch with your doctor about treatment for all of your symptoms so that you can live your life to the fullest.

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