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What is a Stress Headache? Causes and Prevention Tips

As if stress weren’t bad enough on its own, it can both trigger and worsen headaches.

Modern life is stressful and, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon. From the moment your alarm clock jolts you out of bed until you’re finally done for the day, you are likely to experience some amount of stress. This can manifest psychologically, like anxiety or physically, like eye and neck strain from sitting at a computer. While a little stress is tolerable, too much can have damaging health effects.1 Many ailments can be attributed to the mental and physiological pressures we’re under, ranging from fatigue to stomach upset to sleep problems. Top of the list? That nagging headache.2

Can stress really cause headaches?

Yes. In fact, stress is a central cause of many headaches.

Whether it’s due to an over-packed to-do list, a demanding job, personal issues or a growing pile of bills, stress is a likely cause behind the most common type of headache – the tension headache (which aptly goes by the nickname ‘stress headache’).

What exactly is a stress headache?

You have likely experienced many different types of headaches – which can range from sinus to migraines. So, how can you tell if your headache may be caused by stress? Tension or stress headache symptoms tend to follow a pattern:3

  • A stress headache will normally be a mild or moderately painful dull ache.
  • Stress headache pain will often feel like a tight band around your head
  • Your scalp, neck and shoulders may also feel sore or tender. Stress headaches can be either episodic (short-lasting and occurring less than 15 days per month) or chronic (blending together and occurring 15 or more days per month).
  • Unlike migraines, stress headaches aren’t typically aggravated by light, sound or physical activity.

Call your doctor if your headache gets worse, or if you develop other symptoms – including vision problems, dizziness or a stiff neck. While stress headaches are very common, your headache may be a symptom of another condition.

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How can stress cause headaches?

Everyday stress can trigger headaches through subconscious changes in our behavior.4

  • When people are stressed, they often tighten their neck and shoulders. Tense muscles in the back of the neck and even in the scalp can cause the tight band feeling many people use to describe stress-related headaches.
  • Many people clench their jaws and/or grind their teeth when they’re stressed, both of which can trigger headaches on their own.5
  • Anxiety and stress are common culprits of restless nights, and insomnia is a risk factor for tension headaches and migraines alike. 6
  • Stress can trigger appetite changes. Many people may find themselves eating less and even skipping meals when they’re stressed. This can throw blood sugar levels off balance, potentially causing tension headaches and migraines.7
  • Our bodies react to stressful events with a ‘fight or flight’ response. The release of certain chemicals from this response can cause physical change in the blood vessels. This, in turn, can bring on tension headaches.8
  • Physical stress can also cause tension headaches. Examples are ergonomic issues such as poor posture and eye strain.9

What’s more, no matter your headache type, stress can both worsen and prolong your symptoms. According to recent research, every 10 percent increase in stress levels can cause 6.3 percent more tension headaches days per month and 4.3 migraine days.10 This means that, if you’re stressed, you could be fighting an uphill battle to get rid of that headache.11

How to prevent and relieve stress headaches

  • Stress is an unfortunate fact of life. So, how can you prevent it from causing headaches? And how do you find stress headache relief when you do get one?
  • Count to 10: Mindfulness may be trendy, but it’s really just a fancy word for stopping to smell the roses. Taking a few minutes to relax and simply breathe can do wonders for your body and mind. You may then choose to progress to meditation – a more regular and structured ‘break’ from the demands of daily life.12
  • Exercise: In addition to keeping your body in shape, physical exertion is an excellent way to relieve tension and anxiety.13
  • Eat healthy: It’s a no-brainer really, but making sure your body is getting its essential nutrients will help keep stress headaches at bay. Oh, and stay well-hydrated too!14
  • Make lists: Taking control of your life can help to reduce anxiety. So, roll up your sleeves, organize the chaos and welcome the calm.15
  • Take a nap: If you’re not sleeping well or long enough at night, try taking a short rest during the day. Studies show that even a 20-minute ‘power nap’ can help you feel refreshed and re-energized.16
  • Talk to someone: Freud called psychotherapy ‘the talking cure’ for a reason. The mere act of voicing your problems helps them feel like less of a burden. Whether you confide in a family member, a friend or a therapist, many people find that ‘a problem shared is a problem halved.17
  • Just smile: Don’t underestimate the power of a smile. The physical act of smiling triggers the release of endorphins in our bodies that reduce stress and make us feel better. So, as they say, fake it until you make it!18

You may still experience the occasional tension headache but practicing the above techniques should help reduce their frequency and severity. If you’re looking for a quick and effective way to get rid of a stress headache, try an over-the-counter headache relief medication like Excedrin.

While relaxation therapies and simply cutting down on the stress in your life can help to reduce the occurrence of tension headaches, chronic tension headaches may be indicative of a more serious issue. Consult a doctor to discuss and learn more about your headaches.

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