Depression and Anxiety in Migraine Patients

Todd A. Smitherman, PhD and Steven M. Baskin, PhD

Key Points:

  • Migraine patients often have depression or anxiety.
  • Depression and anxiety are worse when migraine attacks occur very often.
  • When depression and anxiety are worse, more migraines are likely.
  • Learning to recognize symptoms of depression and anxiety is helpful.
  • Medications and therapy can help with depression and anxiety.
  • Talk to your health care provider if you experience these symptoms.

Migraine, Depression, and Anxiety

Many migraine patients suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety. Migraine patients are between two to five times more likely to have these symptoms than patients without migraine. About 25% of patients with migraine have depression, and about 50% have anxiety. Some patients have symptoms of these disorders after living with migraine for years. Others develop them before migraine. At this time, scientists don’t know the exact answer why all are so common. One of the brain chemicals involved in all these conditions is called serotonin. Hormone changes in women can also trigger both conditions.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are most common among people with chronic migraine, which is when headache attacks occur on 15 or more days a month. For people with fewer headaches, depression or anxiety puts them at risk for more headaches over time. Symptoms of depression and anxiety also impact other areas of health. Migraine patients with depression or anxiety have higher medical costs, are at increased risk for suicide, and have higher levels of disability than migraine patients without depression or anxiety. Also, and perhaps most importantly, headache treatments don’t work as well when the depression or anxiety is not also being treated. Untreated patients are less likely to follow medicine or behavior treatment plans. They also show less response to headache medications, and are more likely to relapse. For these reasons, treating all these conditions is very important.

Warning Symptoms—Especially Feelings and Thoughts

Depression and anxiety treatment begins first with recognizing if you have symptoms. Both often appear as physical symptoms, some of which are similar to those seen in migraine. For example, problems with sleep and appetite changes, being easily upset, trouble concentrating, and low energy are all symptoms of migraine, depression, and anxiety. As a result, it is better to pay attention to thoughts and feelings. Depression usually involves strong feelings of sadness or hopelessness that last two weeks or more. Some migraine patients who are depressed do not feel sad or down, but are simply not as interested in activities that they normally enjoy. Others include feeling worthless, guilty, or thoughts of suicide.

Anxiety Types

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorder. 50-60% of migraine patients will suffer from an anxiety disorder. Most anxiety disorders involve chronic worry or fear and avoiding things that trigger these feelings. In panic disorder, the patient has recurrent, unexpected feelings of intense fear or terror that seem to come from out of the blue. The heart starts beating rapidly and breathing becomes strained. Other symptoms may involve sweating, fear of dying, or losing control. Although attacks don’t last very long and are not dangerous, many people develop significant anxiety between attacks and come to fear normal body sensations.

Patients with generalized anxiety disorder can’t control their constant worry. They worry about life events that may never even happen. They are “worry warts” who often expect the worst possible outcome of every situation. Physical symptoms such as fatigue, trouble concentrating, and having tense muscles are common in these patients. Phobias are fears of specific objects or places, such as an intense fear of social interactions that causes the patient to avoid most social situations (social phobia). Physicians and mental health professionals assess these symptoms through interviews, surveys, and observing patient behavior.

Treatment Options

Many medications and therapies help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Antidepressants reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety because they change how the brain sends chemical signals. Sometimes a single method can help both symptoms of depression/anxiety and headache. However, many patients require two different drugs or behavioral treatments for a period of time. They need one to treat depression/anxiety and another to prevent migraines.
Behavioral therapies for depression require a commitment to changing behaviors that make depression worse. They often focus on getting involved in enjoyable or rewarding activities, knowing that if you force yourself to do these things your mood will improve over time. Changing thoughts about certain aspects of life can also be useful. Behavioral interventions for anxiety include safe and gradual exposure to the things that the patient fears. It too involves changing how the patient thinks about those things. Behavioral therapies are effective for depression, and tend to be more effective than medication for anxiety disorders, particularly for long-term relief. For many patients, combining medication and behavioral therapy is better than either one alone for depression, anxiety, and headache.

Much work remains to help determine the best treatment options for different types of patients. We also need to better understand the impact that treating depression and anxiety has on headache. Remember, it is extremely important to obtain best treatment for each disorder: the depression or anxiety and the headache disorder. Safe and effective drug and behavioral therapies are available, so talk with your provider about any symptoms that you have.

Todd A. Smitherman, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS; and Steven M. Baskin, PhD, Director, New England Institute for Behavioral Medicine, Stamford, CT