Many of us may be guilty of describing a headache as a migraine, but there is a distinct difference. Migraine is not ‘just a headache’. It is a serious condition and can be frightening and utterly disabling.
We all get stressed at work. And that’s not always a bad thing. Harnessed in the right way, stress can be a powerful motivating force. After all, many people thrive under pressure.
More often, though, stress is debilitating and unpleasant. What’s more, it’s one of the most common triggers for migraine, the world’s third most common disease*. Over 10% of the world’s population is living with migraine – and stress is one of the most common triggers**.
Let’s face it: nobody wants to be stressed, especially those affected by migraine, who fear it could trigger an attack. And nobody has to be. We spoke to professor Sabina Brennan, a psychologist specialising in brain health from Trinity College Dublin, and Elena Ruiz de la Torre, president of the European Headache Alliance (EHA), to discover the half dozen tips you need to banish stress from the workplace and reduce your risk of migraine attacks.
HAVE AN INBOX STRATEGY
A vast amount of many people’s working lives is spent staring at a computer screen (which can be a migraine trigger in itself**), desperately scrolling through scores of unread emails.
According to research, the average business person sends or receives 108 emails a day***. How to cope with email overload and stop inbox stress in its tracks? For starters, experiment with only checking your email every hour, or – if you’re likely to receive urgent emails – every 30 minutes. Getting out of the ‘I must reply immediately’ mind-set can do wonders for your stress levels. “Checking emails only at specific time points during the day can restore a sense of predictability,” says Brennan. “Try not to put too much pressure on yourself and be realistic about what you and your colleagues can achieve in any one day!”
Secondly, create three folders: ‘Follow Up’, ‘Archive’ and ‘Hold’. Everything that lands in your inbox can be quickly shoved into one of these trio – to be dealt with later. And few things are as calming and satisfying as an empty inbox.
SPOT SIGNS OF STRESS EARLY AND TAKE NECESSARY ACTION
We all behave differently when stressed. Some of us excel. Most of us don’t. And many people will see unchecked stress trigger a migraine. More than 25 million work days in the UK are lost due to migraines, with more than 90% of people living with migraine unable to work or function normally while they are experiencing an attack****.
Different coping techniques will work for different people, so experimentation is key. As soon as you feel your work getting on top of you and might be heading to levels where it could cause a migraine, take some tips from Elena Ruiz de la Torre: “Stop what you are doing and move. Sitting in one place for a long period of time can often be problematic, especially if you are not seated properly with correct posture. Make sure your back is well placed and your computer is facing you at a comfortable position.”
The key with migraine is prevention. “As a group, people living with migraine – myself included – can often be perfectionists, and prioritise work over their health,” says Ruiz de la Torre. “Remember, there is nothing more important than your wellbeing.”
MASTER THE ART OF THE TO-DO LIST
Perhaps the biggest problem with modern work is that – thanks to the internet and constant connectivity – you can always do more. Your work is never finished. And, naturally, this fact can contribute to huge amounts of stress, which may trigger migraine.
A sensible daily to-do list, therefore, is key, offering a bookend to the day and stopping you from burning out and damaging your health. What’s more, the simple act of writing down all the things you need to do provides immediate stress relief, as you no longer need to hold them all in your head. “Regaining a sense of control through organisation and more effective time management can minimise stress and lower risk of migraine,” says Brennan.
Pro tip: try applying productivity guru David Allen’s ‘two-minute rule’. If a task comes in that can be completed in 120 seconds or less, do it immediately, rather than add it to a slowly growing to do list. You got this.
TRY THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE
One of the most famous productivity hacks, the vaunted Pomodoro technique has you work in 25-minute intervals with five-minute breaks in between each one. During each 25-minute work period, you ignore all distractions and focus entirely on the task at hand.
Meetings, deadlines and emails (see above!) can all make the Pomodoro technique almost impossible to follow all day, but experiment with sticking to it as much as you can. Five-minute work breaks every 30 mins – as well as taking a decent size lunch break away from the screen – can do wonders for your stress levels. “We need to have balance in our lives to recuperate,” says Brennan. “Time spent in nature away from technology can be restorative, give us some perspective and allow us to cope better with stressful events.”
TACKLE YOUR MOST IMPORTANT TASK FIRST
Obvious? Maybe. But getting stuck in and finishing the most important task on your to-do list first thing in the morning – before you even check your email – will provide a dopamine squirt of satisfaction and help you get in the right mood for low-stress productivity. After all, open that inbox and anything could be in there…
If you’re deeply stressed on arrival at work and have a very difficult task burdening you, try using a few minutes at the beginning of the day to find a quiet space and taking some deep breaths. “Mindfulness creates a relaxed state to prompt your nervous system to calm down the physiology of the fight or flight stress response,” says Brennan. “Being ‘in the moment’ helps us to stay away from negative thought or memories or work-related pressures that can cause anxiety, stress and depression.”
FENG SHUI YOUR WORKSPACE
Sadly, you probably spend as much time at your desk at work as you do in your home. But few afford the same level of care and attention to their work environment as they do to their bedroom, kitchen or living room.
With fluorescent lights, eye-searing wallpaper, posture-ruining chairs, raucous colleagues and a hell of a lot of staring at a computer screen, your unedited workspace can be a migraine trigger made flesh.
“Small adjustments to your desk space can reduce the likelihood that you will trigger a migraine,” says Brennan. Try adjusting your monitor’s refresh rate – you can check it in ‘Settings’. If the refresh rate is set too low it can lead to an imperceptible flicker, which can cause stress on your eyes. “Managing computer use during downtime is also important,” says Brennan. “The blue light from devices can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime – essentially waking our brain up when it should be winding down for a good restorative night’s sleep.”
With more headspace at work we may just be able to reduce migraine triggers like stress. It’s serious business and you’re not alone! For more information on migraine, please visit europeanheadachealliance.org
* The Migraine Trust. Facts and Figures. Available at:/ [Last accessed: September 2017]
** The Migraine Association of Ireland. Migraine in the Workplace. Available at:/ [Last accessed: September 2017]
*** Rhymer Rigby. Financial Times. How to cope with Email Overload. 9 February 2014. Available at:[Last accessed: September 2017]
**** Migraine Research Foundation. About Migraine: Migraine Facts. Available at:/ [Last accessed: September 2017]
Authored by Women’s Health in collaboration with Novartis [6 September 2017]. This disease awareness campaign is sponsored by Novartis Pharma AG.