Headaches: Reduce stress to prevent the pain

Stress can make your head hurt — and a headache can really stress you out. To reduce the pain, rein in the stress.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

In the flurry of a frantic morning, you may find that your head starts pounding. It's not a coincidence — headaches are more likely to occur when you're stressed.

Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine. It can also trigger other types of headaches or make them worse. Stress is a particularly common headache trigger in children and young adults.

Taking simple steps to manage your stress can help prevent some types of headaches.

The daily grind

Major changes in your life can cause stress. But that's not usually the type of stress that triggers headaches.

Instead, it's often the everyday irritants — searching for lost papers, sitting in traffic, a big project at work — that may trigger headaches in some people.

Your body may respond to these daily stressors by tensing your muscles, grinding your teeth or stiffening your shoulders. These involuntary reactions may make your headaches worse.

Stop the cycle

You can't avoid daily stress. But you can keep stress under control — and help prevent headaches.

Consider relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can reduce symptoms of stress, including headaches. Making time for pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, dancing, playing a sport, reading a book or playing with your pet can help.

In addition, set aside time, even if it's just 10 minutes a day, to practice relaxation. Try one of these relaxing activities:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Deep breathing

Also, to reduce stress daily, consider these tips:

  • Simplify your schedule. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day, trim your daily to-do list. Ask yourself what really needs to be done, what can wait and what you need not do. It's OK to say no.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a proven way to prevent — and sometimes treat — headaches. Exercise also provides a break from the stress of daily life. Be careful to warm up slowly. Sudden, intense exercise can cause headaches.
  • Eat smart. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can give you more energy and help keep stress under control.
  • Get adequate sleep. Stress can make it hard to sleep, but not getting enough sleep can make it harder to cope with stress. Lack of sleep stresses your body and may trigger the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Seek support. Talking things out with family or friends or allowing them to help you through a difficult time can help you manage stress. Talking to a therapist might also help.
  • Manage your time wisely. Update your to-do list every day — both at work and at home. Delegate what you can and break large projects into manageable steps. Tackle the rest, one task at a time.
  • Be prepared. Organize your day. Anticipate challenges. Try to keep your plan flexible, in case a headache strikes and you need to change course.
  • Let go. Try not to worry about things you can't control.
  • Adjust your attitude. Encourage yourself with positive self-talk. Putting a positive spin on negative thoughts can help you work through stressful situations. If you need help with this process, consider cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, take some time to clear your mind. A few slow stretches or a brisk walk may renew your energy for the task at hand. Or take a mental vacation by imagining yourself in a calm, relaxing place.
  • Laugh. Humor is a great way to relieve stress. Laughter releases endorphins, natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude. Try watching funny movies or reading a funny book.
  • Change the pace. Break away from your routine and try something new. A vacation or weekend getaway may help you develop a new outlook.
  • Change your habits. If you smoke, quit. Cut down on caffeine and, if you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men.

Recognize when it's more than stress

Most headaches are nothing to worry about. But if headaches get in the way of your daily activities, work or personal life, ask your doctor for help. You may be stressed, but perhaps there's something else going on as well.

Seek emergency care if your headache:

  • Is sudden and severe
  • Accompanies a fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking
  • Follows a head injury, fall or bump
  • Gets worse despite rest and taking pain medication you can buy without a prescription

These symptoms may indicate a medical condition that needs treatment right away.

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Aug. 09, 2022 See more In-depth