For teens and children with migraines, feeling stressed is a significant migraine trigger — both during the stressful time and afterward. Those who suffer from migraines need to be aware and vigilant with their self-care to help decrease the number of migraines.
Stress can also trigger tension-type or stress headaches. Many of us carry our cares and worries in our neck and shoulders. During stressful times, the trapezius and paracervical muscles tense up around our heads, squeezing the occipital nerve in particular bilaterally, thus triggering headache. You can’t relieve the pain without getting those muscles to relax.
So learning to manage stress is an important aspect of self-care for people with headaches and migraines. When I ask my teenage patients how they manage their stress, the usual responses are that they talk with friends/family, nap, play with a pet or watch Netflix and relax.
Those are “relaxing” activities and they can be helpful in the moment, but they are not the same as “turning on the relaxation response,” which is the key to managing stress. It can be challenging to talk about this subject, and hard to get your kids to listen and take action. But we can get creative and try.
I usually explain a little about the autonomic nervous system (ANS), how it gets activated by stress and pain, and that it’s not under our voluntary control. Overactivation of the ANS can be turned down by turning on the relaxation response. This is an intentional activity meant to induce real relaxation, quiet the mind chatter and improve focus.
There are a variety of ways to turn on the relaxation response, such as yoga, meditation, guided imagery, breath counting, acupuncture/acupressure, progressive body scan and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. There are many ways to access these methods, including some great phone apps (my favorite is Insight Timer).
But how do you get a kid to do this? It can be tough since teens don’t feel they have a lot of free time. We are not talking about spending a whole hour on a cushion contemplating the universe. I always emphasize that five to 10 minutes is enough time to do an exercise, and everyone has that kind of time. We talk about which relaxation techniques interest them, when to fit just one exercise into the day and what it would be helpful for, such as meditation just before bed for sleep or a yoga class on the weekend before hanging out with friends.
I hear a lot of parents and kids say “It doesn’t work” when the kids are stressed. In reality, it is exceedingly difficult to engage in a new skill, like deep breathing, when your nervous system is on high alert. The worst time to try out an app for the first time is when you really need it. Practice in quiet times allows children and teens to feel more confident about the exercises so they can call on their skills during stressful moments.
Bonus! Doing a relaxation exercise frequently can help reset the stress response, so when kids do get stressed, it won’t be so intense.