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Anxiety and Headaches

writtenByWritten by: Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Dr. Katalin Karolyi
Reviewer

Dr. Katalin Karolyi

Katalin Karolyi, M.D. earned her medical degree at the University of Debrecen. After completing her residency program in pathology at the Kenezy Hospital, she obtained a postdoctoral position at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Orlando, Florida.

July 10, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

Understanding Anxiety and Headaches

Headaches are pains that occur in the head with varying characteristics, ranging from mild to severe pain. Headaches may be caused by triggers or other various factors. 

There are several types of headaches, including tension headaches, stress headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, and chronic daily headaches. 

  • Tension headaches (also called stress or psychomyogenic headache) are mild to moderate pain often described as feeling like a tight band around the head. Multiple factors can bring on a tension headache, including stress, inadequate sleep, and poor posture.
  • Cluster headaches are a type of severe headache that tends to recur over a period of several weeks, in which the pain is usually limited to one side of the head, and often followed by long periods of remission (relief).
  • Migraines are headaches of varying intensity, often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Triggers include hormonal changes, certain foods and drinks, stress, and exercise.
  • Chronic daily headaches occur 15 days or more a month, for longer than three months and are not caused by another condition.

Although the causal mechanism for headaches is still being studied, researchers believe headaches are caused by neurological and psychological origins. 

For example, migraines are a common neurological disorder that affects 11% of adults worldwide, while most people who suffer from migraines also have some type of mental disorder. 

There is a link between anxiety and headaches. Doctors know that people who suffer from headaches may have more anxiety than those who do not.

Anxiety and headaches are associated in some people as headaches can trigger anxiety disorders. While anxiety may contribute to headaches, there is no medical or clinical condition for so-called “anxiety headaches,” which are not a category or classification of headaches. Instead, tension headaches, migraine or cluster headaches are an actual category of headache that people may have due to contributing factors. 

Tension headaches are diffuse, mild to moderate pain often described as feeling like a tight band around the head. Multiple factors can bring on tension/stress headaches, including poor-quality sleep, stress and poor posture. Tension headaches can be chronic and ongoing, with some lasting for days at a time.

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Anxiety and Headache Symptoms 

Anxiety and headache symptoms can range from mild to severe. A headache can feel like a dull, constant pain. Most tension headaches are mild to moderate. 

A tension headache (tension-type headache) is the most common type of headache, and yet its causes aren’t well-understood. There is a known relationship between anxiety and headaches, but with unclear etiology. 

Symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • Dull, aching head pain
  • Sensation of tightness or pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head
  • Tenderness on your scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles

A more severe type of headache caused by anxiety through bad sleeping habits are migraines. Migraines are more severe because they often involve visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting. 

Visual disturbances can include painful experiences to light. Migraines indirectly can also be caused by anxiety. People with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorders (GAD) are more prone to migraines which can be severe. Physical activity typically aggravates migraine pain yet doesn’t make tension headache pain worse. 

Some symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • An increased sensitivity to either light or sound 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Prodrome signs like a specific aura

Visual disturbances can occur with a tension headache, but these aren’t common symptoms. Migraines and chronic daily headaches are common in people who suffer from anxiety disorders.

How to Stop Anxiety and Headaches

Prevention is key to stop anxiety and headaches, but if you are suffering from anxiety and headache the best thing to do is go to a quiet room and rest. It sounds simple: reduce your anxiety and also reduce your anxiety-related headaches, but it takes hard work. 

Techniques to reduce anxiety take practice, time, and determination. It is not a quick fix, but little changes made daily over time can help reduce the number of anxiety headaches.

If you are at work or school and begin to have an anxiety headache, take your break early and go to a quiet place. Maybe even take a walk outside to ease your worries. Take some time for yourself and remove yourself from the stressful situation. 

Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga have been shown to reduce anxiety. Some herbal medications such as CBD oil or chamomile tea helps some people. 

Anxiety and Headache Prevention

The most common preventive measure for anxiety and headaches involve reducing the triggers that cause the headaches. Stress is the most commonly reported trigger for tension headaches. 

Stress reduction techniques include:

  • High-quality sleep
  • Deep breathing and other relaxation techniques 
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Biofeedback
  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercise regularly 
  • Eat a balanced, healthy diet and reduce sugar intake
  • Drink plenty of water each day
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine

Preventing anxiety and headaches also involve you being aware of emotional and physical triggers. Emotional triggers are actions that spark emotional responses. These can often lead to anxiety and headaches. Physical triggers are things that you consume that may activate anxiety and headaches such as caffeine, alcohol, or lack of sleep.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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Anxiety and Headache Treatment

Anxiety and headache treatment includes a combination of preventative care, medication, and behavioral therapy. Treatment challenges exist for doctors treating a person with a co-occurring anxiety disorder and chronic headache pain due to unknown specific causes. Doctors will usually suggest a combination therapy of behavioral treatment and medications.

In addition, research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used for behavioral therapy to treat anxiety related headaches. CBT is considered for those who have migraines and a specific anxiety disorder known as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

A doctor may select medication that works for both anxiety and headache pain such as anxiolytics or antidepressants. These medications work to reduce chemicals in the brain that cause stress and increase the chemicals that stabilize mood and behavioral responses to stimuli. 

At PlushCare, an online doctor can assist you with a treatment plan to help reduce your risk of anxiety and headaches. Book an appointment at PlushCare today with one of our board-certified doctors and get the care you need. 


Read More About Anxiety and Headaches


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

Kowalska, M., Prendecki, M., Kozubski, W., Lianeri, M., & Dorszewska, J. (2016). Molecular factors in migraine. Oncotarget, 7(31), 50708–50718. Accessed on May 04, 2021 at

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5226615/pdf/oncotarget-07-50708.pdf   

American Migraine Foundation. The Basics of Tension-Type Headaches. Accessed on May 04, 2021 at
https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/tension-type-headache/

Mayo Clinic. Tension Headache. Accessed on May 04, 2021 at
https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20353977

Cleveland Clinic. Headaches. Accessed on June 16,2021 at
https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9639-headaches

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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