Everybody experiences stress—it’s a natural physical reaction and can sometimes be beneficial—but long-term, chronic stress significantly impacts a person’s health and can lead to serious health consequences. Can stress cause headaches then? Absolutely.
How can stress cause headaches?
Stress is a fight-or-flight reaction triggered by situations the mind considers threatening or beyond its control. Instinctually, stress came in handy when humans lived in caves and killed bears for dinner. The physical effects of the reaction helped a person gather energy and run to safety.
Today, however, most people don’t encounter existential threats on a regular basis. Instead of killing wild animals for dinner, we buy food from the grocery store. Stress triggers have evolved from our hunting and gathering days, and now consist of things like chronic health concerns, family conflicts, and office politics.
The difference between historic stressors and these new ones is that while the bear eventually disappeared, work, family, and health concerns don’t. Because of this, many people live their entire lives while inundated with chronic stress. This can lead to significant health problems.
Stress affects the body on a biological level
When we think of how can stress cause headaches, we have to first look at the body on a biological level. On the most basic level, the stress response begins in the brain, which triggers the release of an adrenaline hormone known as epinephrine, which increases heartbeat, pulse, and blood pressure.
Over time, chronic stress may result in high blood pressure, and mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Some people may also develop addictions to drugs or alcohol in an effort to cope with stress, according to Harvard Health. People may turn to food to cope with the tension, stop exercising, or have difficulty sleeping. These side issues may lead to obesity or other health problems.
Stress and pain are intricately linked
The increased levels of adrenaline stress brings may seem on a cursory level to help a person feel less pain, but research conducted by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University found that all types of stress—acute and chronic—actually intensified feelings of pain.
Scientists studied 29 males and found a link between stronger reactions to stress and greater suffering from pain. Chronic stress has an even greater impact on physical health than acute stress, researchers said, but the study proves that any kind of stress has an impact on pain. Study author Ruth Defrin says:
“While there is no way to predict the type of stress we will feel under different circumstances, it is advisable to do everything in our power—adopt relaxation and stress reduction techniques as well as therapy—to reduce the amount of stress in our lives.”
Can stress cause headaches?
Stress is one of the top triggers for headaches, with even short periods of tension potentially causing your head to pound. Long-term stress sometimes leads to more serious concerns, such as chronic headaches, cluster headaches, or migraines.
Headaches may feel like your brain is literally pounding, but the brain doesn’t have any pain receptors, which means the pain comes from some other place. Those places include blood vessels, nerves, sinuses, or subcutaneous tissue that sustain damage or become inflamed. The brain processes signals from nerves sending messages of damage or inflammation, and the brain believes the damage is coming from inside itself, leading to the sensation of pain.
The stress response and the natural chemicals it releases such as cortisol result in tensed muscles and inflammation, which in turn can cause a headache. Different people experience different types of headaches, but establishing effective ways of managing stress is an effective way to limit their occurrence, no matter which type you suffer from.
Can stress cause migraines?
Migraines are a particularly vicious type of headache that is unfortunately common, affecting more than 10% of the U.S. population, including adults and children, according to the Migraine Research Foundation.
Migraines often run in families, and children of migraine sufferers face a 40% chance of developing the attacks. This may be because of a genetic link, but it could also have something to do with learned behaviors. Anxiety, which is closely linked to stress, is contagious and easily passed from parents to children in learned behaviors, according to research published in The American Journal of Psychiatry. The journal’s editor, Professor Robert Freedman, says the anxiety was passed on purely through behavior and not due to genetics.
This means that parents who respond to uncertainty with stress teach their children to respond in similar ways. Fortunately, these ways of thinking are changed through treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or practices like meditation.
Other health effects of stress
When we ask, can stress cause headaches, we typically look at only the direct correlation between the two. However, since stress impacts other parts of the body, this damage or inflammation can in turn create unhealthier patterns or behaviors, which can again, cause headaches. As all pain doctors know, the body and mind are connected in complex ways. We’ll look at just a few other ways stress can affect the body and then, most importantly, ways to reduce stress to reduce pain.
Chronic stress hurts the cardiovascular system
By now, it’s well known that stress impacts heart health. The tension can lead to strokes and heart attacks, and researchers are diving into the mechanisms underlying this connection.
Scientists believe stress increases the risk of these health concerns because of the inflammation-causing chemicals released during the fight-or-flight response, according to research published in Biological Psychiatry. To investigate how this happens in the body, scientists studied the brain activity of adults while the subjects were shown unpleasant pictures.
Researchers found that adults whose brains were more actively working to counteract the effects of stress were also more likely to have increased blood levels of inflammatory chemicals. Learning to regulate the stress response could help keep the heart healthy and reduce inflammation. Biological Psychiatry editor Dr. John Krystal says:
“As we identify the key mechanisms linking brain and body, we may be able to also break the cycle through which stress and depression impair physical health.”
Chronic stress could affect your diet
Stress may even amplify the risks of eating foods high in fat and sugar, according to research conducted at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Researchers found that stressed people with unhealthy diets are more likely to develop health problems than non-stressed people who eat the same diet. Lead study author Kirstin Aschbacher says:
“Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress.”
Chronic stress, the UCSF research says, increases the risk of metabolic syndrome, which refers to a slew of factors including high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, in addition to excess stomach fat. Metabolic syndrome is related to obesity and increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.
The study suggests that chronic stress may have an even greater impact on health than diet alone. Many headache conditions, such as migraine, are tied to food triggers. These changes could have a direct effect on the amount, duration, and severity of your headaches.
Stress less, live longer
Chronic stress may even decrease a person’s longevity, according to Oregon State University research that compared the impacts of stress from daily annoyances like traffic and work to serious life events, like losing a loved one. The study focused on older men. Researchers found that either type of stress could shorten a man’s life, but more important than the type of stress experienced was how a person reacted to it. Researcher Carolyn Aldwin says:
“It’s not the number of hassles that does you in, it’s the perception of them being a big deal that causes problems…Taking things in stride may protect you.”
Chronic stress impacts other emotions
Have you ever arrived home after spending an hour in traffic only to have a minor annoyance at home set you off? That’s because stress makes people grouchy, and a study published in Nature Communications has learned why.
Chronic stress eats away at a brain mechanism important for social skills and healthy cognition. It does this by affecting pathways in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory, learning, and emotion, literally interfering with healthy responses. Interestingly, these affected pathways are the same ones involved in neurodegenerative diseases like epilepsy. Researchers plan to explore stress’ potential impact on those diseases as well.
Try these stress-reduction techniques, depending on your headache type
Can stress cause headaches? Absolutely. But more importantly, are there things you can do right now to reduce headache pain? Also, yes. Reducing stress to stop pain from developing in the first place is often an effective form of treatment for people suffering from head pain. Targeting specific stress-reduction techniques based on your type of headache is an even more powerful approach.
1. Tension headaches
Tensed muscles may result in a common type of headache known as a tension headache or informally as stress headaches. These headaches are characterized by a feeling of pressure surrounding the head, and they may last anywhere from less than an hour to several days. And while many people may experience an occasional tension headache, prolonged stress can result in chronic tension headaches, which are defined as those occurring for more than 15 days on any given month.
To reduce tension headaches, try to reduce stress through methods such as meditation, exercise, and a good sleep routine. If your schedule feels overwhelming, look it over and consider prioritizing items, leaving some things undone, delegating, or simply telling someone, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time to help you.”
Tension headaches are often caused by environmental stress, like excessive work demands, and reducing this stress could require changes in how you handle work. If you’re having difficulty identifying ways to reduce stress, consider counseling sessions to help you better manage time, prevent overload, and manage others’ expectations.
2. Chronic progressive headaches
This type of headache is not very common, accounting for fewer than 5% of all adult headaches, but for those who experience the pain, it greatly impacts life. Just as the name implies, these headaches are chronic, which means they occur frequently, but they’re also progressive, which means the pain worsens over time.
These headaches are linked to inflammation, according to WebMD, which is exacerbated or caused by stress. Limiting stress could help reduce the progression of chronic progressive headaches.
Simple, daily practices like meditating in the morning, exercising, and establishing regular sleep cycles can be effective for managing this type of chronic headache.
3. Cluster headaches
Cluster headaches develop in groups, one right after the other within the span of a day. They’re also closely linked to the seasons, with people typically experiencing them for one season of the year, with the specific season different for everybody. Cluster headache patients then live free from headaches during the rest of the year.
Cluster headaches are little understood, but stress is believed to play a role. The condition is also likely related to changes in the body’s natural clock, the circadian rhythm. Stress-reduction techniques such as establishing a regular sleeping schedule are helpful for reducing pain from cluster headaches.
Through mindfulness or changing thought patterns, people of any age can learn to approach situations with a calm mind and the idea that they are capable of handling whatever comes their way. This approach reduces stress, which could in turn reduce migraines and other headaches.
And while tension headaches are often related to environmental stress, emotional stress is a common trigger for migraines, according to the Cleveland Clinic. People with migraines are frequently more emotionally reactive than the general population and more vulnerable to experiencing stress from life events.
Another difference between migraines and tension headaches when it comes to stress is that while tension headaches may develop during or immediately after a stressful event, the onset of a migraine is a little more delayed, researchers at Montefiore Medical Center have found. Stress experienced one day increased subjects’ likelihood of developing a migraine the following day. It’s as if subjects’ bodies and minds were geared to make it through the time of stress, but then their bodies reacted during the stress let-down and a migraine developed.
Researchers encouraged migraine sufferers to regularly participate in stress-reduction activities like exercising, taking a yoga class, or simply focusing on the breath for a few moments. These practices limit the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone released by the fight-or-flight response that also results in inflammation and muscle tension.
Study co-author Dr. Dawn Buse says:
“It is important for people to be aware of rising stress levels and attempt to relax during periods of stress rather than allowing a major build-up to occur.”
To learn more about preventing migraine pain, check out the video below.
Living with headaches
Can stress cause headaches? Yes. And you also have some power to change that. By incorporating these stress-reduction techniques into your life, you can reduce the amount, severity, and duration of headaches.
However, if headaches continue to impact your quality of life even after incorporating these techniques, it may be time to talk to a pain doctor. They can help you diagnose the cause of your headaches and suggest other therapies that can help you reduce pain. Find a pain doctor in your area today by clicking here.
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