Amy* noticed a change early last year. The 31-year-old had been suffering from debilitating migraines for the past 20 years — episodes with auras and light sensitivity, nonstop vomiting, and excruciating pain on the right side of her head. She’d finally found the right medicine, though, and had gotten the frequency down to about once or twice a year. However, as Election Day began to approach, she found her migraines were happening more often. By the spring, Amy — a Hillary Clinton supporter — was having migraines twice a month; by October, they increased to once a week.
“I got a lot more stressed once I realized that … there was a good chance we’d have a very contentious election,” Amy told the Cut. “I felt like I was on high alert all the time, and that’s definitely a trigger, to not be able to let your body shut down and rest.”
Now that the election is over and Trump will soon be sworn in as president, Amy’s migraines are still occurring once every couple of weeks as she continues to feel stress and anxiety over what the next four years might look like. According to Dr. Elizabeth Seng, a clinical psychologist and Excedrin head-pain expert, Amy is merely one of many headache-disorder sufferers who have experienced more disruptions as a result of the 2016 presidential race. “Excedrin did this large nationwide survey of more than 1,000 people, and seven out of ten Americans said that this presidential election has caused more headaches than any other election year,” Seng told the Cut.
There are actually a ton of different types of headaches — but the two most common primary-headache disorders are tension headaches and migraines, Seng explained. The former generally causes dull pain and a sensation of tightness around your forehead, while the latter can be debilitating. People with migraines usually have a severe unilateral pulsing pain, as well as nausea, vomiting, sensory changes (we’re talking blurry vision, seeing auras and even spots), and countless other neurological symptoms. One of the most common triggers for migraines, not surprisingly, is stress.
Many of us experience daily stressors, of course — from rushing to finish a report at work to arguing with in-laws around the holidays. But when you break it down, stress is actually a physiological response often referred to as “flight or fight,” which occurs whenever we have challenges in our environment that we may find overwhelming. Stress causes our heart rate to increase, we get sweaty and tense up, and blood flows into our muscles, all to physically allow us to react to things very quickly, according to Seng. What we’re left with is a body that’s all hyped up for action, and more prone to developing headaches.
“Stress lowers the threshold for people who have primary-headache disorders to have a headache. So if you’re somebody who regularly struggles with tension headaches or migraines, when you’re experiencing stress or you experience big changes in your stress level, you’re more likely to have a headache,” Seng said. “Also when you have a typically high-stress week and it’s the first day of the weekend, and your stress level suddenly drops, that can also trigger headaches.”
With the election, many people found their stress levels rising, as well as the frequency of their migraines, including Michelle*, a 32-year-old who works in media. Before the election, she had only experienced a couple of migraines in her life — and each time after a period of major stress, such as finishing a story on a tight deadline. But now, she’s experiencing them regularly. “I have gotten maybe an average of one a week since Trump got elected,” Michelle told the Cut.
At first, Michelle attributed the headaches to an increased workload, as many people working in media and politics experienced after the election. But as the episodes persisted, she realized they must be tied to the stress of Trump’s impending presidency. “The interesting thing is that I have seemed, at least to myself, to be taking the election less personally/existentially than lots of people. (I’m very upset, obviously, but I didn’t think I was internalizing it),” Michelle said. Similarly, Amy remains as stressed out as she was before the election, due to all the unknowns associated with both a conservative Congress and an incoming administration dead set on attacking women’s reproductive rights, among other things. “I’m still going to wonder every day if my health insurance is going to be taken away,” Amy said, adding that she’s only able to actually afford her migraine medication through the Affordable Care Act.
Seng noted, “I don’t think it’s surprising that in and around and after the election, people are experiencing more stress.” However, the doctor explained that there are two ways individuals can reduce the frequency of their stress-related headaches: They can take steps each day to prevent the headache from actually happening, or they can take medication (often prescribed by a physician) to stop the headache or treat the pain as it occurs.
“Stress is one of the big things that we know contributes to headaches, so people can do things like stress-management activities. Relaxation techniques are specific techniques that reduce that flight or fight response in us. If you use them consistently throughout the day, you may get to keep a low level of stress, even though you have a lot of challenges in your environment, you’re actually changing what your body is responding from,” Seng said. People should also make sure to get enough sleep and never skip meals, the doctor added.
Luckily, the body tends to adapt to stress, so there’s a chance that migraine sufferers may see their episodes decrease as they adjust to the new normal. “Any change is stressful; some of the most joyous times of our life are the most stressful — moving, marriage, vacation, retirement. You adapt to stress,” Seng said. “People who are having a difficult time finding new ways to cope with the changes might want to seek out extra help.”
*Names have been changed.