First I Get Stressed, Then I Get Migraines

I investigate what I can do when a "stress attack" strikes.

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Life's little ironies never cease to surprise me, like this one: I developed a stress-induced migraine last week while shooting a video for an article about relieving stress. As I sat at a day spa, trying unsuccessfully to memorize a script I'd written an hour before, I suddenly felt a squeezing pain at my right temple accompanied by waves of nausea. My anxiety level quickly rose to the point where I could barely string three words together, much less any coherent commentary. I was in the throes of what my reporting revealed to be stress paralysis—a perfect extra bit of research for my article, I thought, but disastrous for the video.

Migraines are three times as common in women as in men, possibly because the headaches are linked to fluctuating estrogen levels. Mine, though, appear to be stress driven and thankfully occur only on rare occasions: The time I had to crash-write a self-help book in six weeks; when I learned about a family member's cancer prognosis; the day when first my wallet was snatched and then the science magazine where I'd just landed a job announced that it was being sold. It's amazing to me how immediately physically hurtful stress can be. Just a few stressful hours (or minutes in my case) can cause enough of an adrenaline jolt to trigger headaches, stomachaches, and neck and shoulder pain and can even suppress the immune system so that you're more likely to catch the flu if an infected person sneezes on you. Stress expert Redford Williams, director of behavioral research at Duke University, tells me he was stuck in a two-hour traffic jam recently on his way to give an important speech. "By the time, I made it to where I needed to go," he says, "my throat was scratchy, my nose was running, and I felt a cold coming on."

More troubling is the toll that chronic stress can take on the immune system. A recent study found that women who reported high levels of daily tension had a lower immune response to a strain of the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer. We often drop healthful behaviors like exercise, good nutrition, and enough sleep when we're feeling chronically overwhelmed, which experts say could also contribute to illness.

What should I do if I feel another stress attack coming on? "Follow my 'I am worth it' approach," recommends Williams, who teaches stress management workshops. I need to ask myself these questions:

Important? Having someone cut you off in traffic, not at all important. Losing your job, very important. Flubbing a video project? I'd say somewhere in between.

Appropriate? I should assess whether my reaction is appropriate to the facts of the situation. Given that this project was an experiment and wasn't going to have a major impact on my career, I probably overreacted in terms of my stress level.

Modifiable? Is the situation modifiable in a positive way? In my particular case, it would have been difficult to get back to full throttle after the migraine set in. If my stress level had been a little lower, I could have taken an extra hour to memorize my lines.

Worth it? I need to figure out if implementing a change makes sense in terms of balancing my own needs with the needs of others. For this, I'd have to say, yes. On my next video shoot (if I ever summon the courage to do another one), I will negotiate a day to practice what I'm going to say before the videographer points the camera at me and presses the "on" button.

How do you deal with stress attacks? Please add your comments.