Headaches: Reduce stress to prevent the pain
Stress can make your head hurt — and a headache can really stress you out. Either way, to reduce the pain, rein in the stress.By Mayo Clinic Staff
You're late. You can't find your keys. You're not prepared for your morning meeting. And the dog just tracked mud through the living room. No wonder you have a headache.
Headaches are more likely to occur when you're stressed. Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine, and can trigger other types of headaches or make them worse.
But stress doesn't have to go to your head. Taking simple steps to manage your stress can help keep your headaches at bay.
The daily grind
The stress of a major life event — the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, a career change, a divorce — is undeniable. 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, tolerating petty annoyances at work — that may erode your ability to cope. For some people, this triggers headaches.
Responding to these daily stressors by tensing your muscles, grinding your teeth or stiffening your shoulders may only make your headaches worse.
Stop the cycle
You can't avoid daily stress. But you can keep stress under control, which can 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. Techniques include:
- Tai chi
- Deep breathing
Also, to reduce stress daily, consider these tips:
- Simplify your life. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day, leave some things out. 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 interfere with sleep, but lack of sleep can hamper your ability to cope with stress. Lack of sleep puts your body under stress 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 help, as well.
- 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 chunks. 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. If you find yourself thinking, "This can't be done," stop yourself. Think instead, "This will be tough. But I can make it work." 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. Don't know what to laugh about? 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.
- Break bad habits. If you smoke, quit. Cut down on caffeine and, if you drink alcohol, don't overdo.
Recognize when it's more than stress
Most headaches are nothing to worry about. But if headaches disrupt 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 over-the-counter pain medication
These signs and symptoms may indicate a medical condition that needs prompt treatment.
May 10, 2019
See more In-depth
- Headache: Hope through research. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Hope-Through-Research/Headache-Hope-Through-Research. Accessed June 28, 2018.
- Stress tip sheet. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2007/10/stress-tips.aspx. Accessed June 18, 2015.
- Your guide to healthy sleep. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep.pdf. Accessed June 18, 2015.
- Tension-type headache in adults: Pathophysiology, clinical features, and diagnosis. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed June 28, 2018.
- Fight stress with healthy habits. American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/StressManagement/FightStressWithHealthyHabits/Fight-Stress-with-Healthy-Habits_UCM_307992_Article.jsp. Accessed June 28, 2018.
- Stress won't go away? Maybe you are dealing with chronic stress. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/chronic-stress.aspx. Accessed June 7, 2015.
- Three tips to manage stress. American Heart Association. https://healthyforgood.heart.org/be-well/articles/3-tips-to-manage-stress. Accessed June 28, 2018.
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