Migraine on the beach: holiday headaches explained

Vacation time at last! As that workday tension drains away, you should be feeling great, right? Finally a chance to get away from it all, clear your head and just enjoy. Migraine on vacation seems to make no sense. When you leave your daily hassles behind, how can a migraine catch up with you? The reality for some people is that vacation makes their migraine worse. How come?

Is migraine a “leisure sickness”?

Leisure sickness is when your body lets you down just when you were about to do all the things you were looking forward to for so long. According to a Dutch study, about three percent of the population regularly suffers from this phenomenon. The survey also showed that an increased incidence of migraine attacks was the most common problem. The study says your gender does not matter, or whether you live alone or with a large extended family. The main link between all the sufferers was that they found it hard to wind down and switch off in their free time, the authors said.

Why would a migraine kick in after the pressure is off?

Plenty of research evidence shows that stress can trigger migraine attacks. But doesn't this argue against the "leisure sickness" theory that you get more attacks on supposedly stress-free weekends and vacations? It may seem like a contradiction, but it makes sense on closer inspection. The point is not that the migraine comes during a period that is in itself stress-free, but that it comes immediately after a period of very high stress. American scientists found that the main characteristic of “post-stress” periods with an increase in migraine occurrence (“let-down headache”) was a sharp fall-off in perceived stress. The sudden change is what seems to be the big challenge for migraine sufferers.

Stress and post-stress

German scientists also did some research and uncovered interesting connections. Looking at these results combined with the Dutch study, it seems clear that it’s not the lack of stress at weekends or on vacation that might give you a migraine during your time off. It turns out that the migraine happens when too much pressure has been building up for too long. When that pressure-packed period ends suddenly, it can be too much for your body to cope with, and/or you have a hard time letting go of your workday stress in your time off.

What can I do?

External stressors are not always under your control. But you can learn to stop the strain from getting to you in the first place, and you can teach yourself to let go of your stress. A German study from 2020 showed that two factors are crucial to bounce back from pressure at work. One is to stop letting work issues dominate your thoughts. The other is a positive overall attitude to the work you do.

1. Say goodbye to your working day

To achieve the latter, one study suggests you wrap up your working day by reflecting on the good things that happened that day. For your final act after a long day, think back on nice things that happened. You may want to get it down on paper. Write down the day’s most interesting or motivational events, or the part of the next day you can look forward to most. A brief period of reflection like this can give you a more positive outlook on your life. It also draws a line under your day and separates it from your evening, weekend or vacation.

2. Learn to let go of your stress

The same study showed that people who manage to stop thinking about work once the working day ends were much better able to relax and recover than those who did not. If you have a hobby or ritual that clears your mind and which you can easily incorporate into your daily routine, you should regularly indulge in this welcome distraction – no matter how stressful your day has been. Squeeze in half an hour of exercise, listening to music or enjoying the outdoors most days. You can do it! Jacobsen’s progressive muscle relaxation is a good place to start (link).

3. Going on vacation? Take your rituals along with you

If you invest time every day to practice letting go of your stress, shifting to vacation mode will be much smoother. Calling all migraineurs: for an enjoyable start to your vacation, regularity in your day is another crucial factor. Going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day, eating and drinking regularly to maintain stable energy levels, and recurring breaks for mindful relaxation are the cornerstones of migraine prevention.

4. Keep up your headache prevention routine, even on vacation

How does a day on vacation differ from a day at work? Workload and stress levels are different, obviously – but when you think about it, you may notice that your basic self-care routines shift too. We tend to sleep longer on vacation or eat dinner later, for example. Remember that regularity in your daily routine is crucial for migraine prevention. Every day, including on vacation. Understandably, you want to sleep in, relax and not keep having to about your next meal or the obligatory glass of water – but these are the little things that will help you enjoy a pain-free vacation.

5. Don’t worry. Be reminded.

For carefree AND headache-free days, use our app. It will send you timely reminders so that you don’t have to remember all these things yourself. For example, it sends push messages at fixed times – leaving your head clear for other things. And finally, a little tip that may make a big difference: If you want to sleep longer but don’t want to wake up with a migraine, have a snack before going to bed. A bedtime snack is an effective way to prevent migraine in general, and even more important if you plan to sleep late. But don't wait too long before having breakfast – a stable supply of energy to the brain is key, even on vacation.

  • References
    • Vingerhoets AJJM, Van Huijgevoort M, Van Heck GL. Leisure sickness: a pilot study on its prevalence, phenomenology, and background. Psychother Psychosom. 2002;71:311–317. doi:10.1159/000065992.
    • Lipton RB, Buse DC, Hall CB, Tennen H, Defreitas TA, Borkowski TM, Grosberg BM, Haut SR. Reduction in perceived stress as a migraine trigger: testing the ‘let-down headache’ hypothesis. Neurology. 2014;82:1395–1401. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000332.
    • Waeldin S, Vogt D, Linden M, Hellhammer DH. Frequency of perceived poststress symptoms in inpatients, outpatients and healthy controls: the role of perceived exhaustion and stress. Psychother Psychosom. 2016;85:36–44. doi: 10.1159/000438866.
    • Sonnentag S, Niessen C. To detach or not to detach? Two experimental studies on the affective consequences of detaching from work during non-work time. Front. Psychol. 2020;11:560156. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.560156.
    • Smit BW. Successfully leaving work at work: The self-regulatory underpinnings of psychological detachment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 2016;89:493–514. doi: 10.1111/joop.12137.