Reduce Stress to Prevent Headaches
- Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
If you're about to run a race or have a looming deadline, stress can help you perform at the top of your game.
Chronic stress, however, puts wear and tear on your body. Increasingly, stress is linked to a number of medical conditions, including headaches and migraines. Once they get going, headaches can generate more stress, which makes the pain worse, and so on: a self-perpetuating cycle. This article examines the link between headaches and stress, and then offers tips to reduce stress headaches.
Life-Saving Stress vs. Stressful Stress:
Long ago, stress enabled humans to outrun tigers, bears, and other predators. The fight-or-flight response, when your whole body focuses on your survival, still has value. If your house is on fire, stress helps you act quickly and gets you out alive. Problems kick in, however, when the stresses of everyday life all start to feel like being trapped inside a burning building.
"We are a heavily stressed society," says Esther Sternberg, MD, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. "From wars and tragedies to trying to keep up with technology and now the economic crisis; we live with almost constant change and uncertainty." The stress of so much change adds up, playing havoc with nerves and muscles, and causing backaches, tension headaches, or migraines.
Stress Is on the Rise:
A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) provides a snapshot of stress and its impact. In a survey of more than 2,500 Americans, more than half felt more stressed in 2008 than the previous year. The report also shed light on the physical and emotional toll. Stressed respondents reported feeing irritable and angry, lying awake at night, losing motivation and energy, and having frequent headaches, among other symptoms.
"Most of today's stressors are mental, not physical," says Jacquelyn Ferguson, stress management coach and author of Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain and Simple. You can either outrun a life-threatening tiger, or not. Either way, the situation and associated stress get resolved quickly. Mental and emotional stress, on the other hand, have a way of sticking around and slowly, invisibly wearing you down.
The Stress-Headache Connection:
Migraines, headaches, and stress are all hard to measure and difficult to treat. On a physical level, headaches start when the nerves and blood vessels around the head send pain signals to the brain. Stress is often a key player, though lack of sleep, anxiety, even changes in the weather can also trigger headaches and migraines.
About 95% of headaches are primary headaches, meaning that they occur on their own, independent of any other underlying condition. Despite the tendency to assume the worst at 2 a.m. when your pounding cranium won't let you sleep, the majority of headaches are simply headaches. This knowledge can provide both relief and frustration. Headaches, after all, cause real suffering, and not knowing how to tackle them makes matters worse.
A Key to Headache Prevention: Identify the Source of Stress:
Several factors trigger widespread stress and unhappiness. Money and the economy topped the list of stressors for people who responded to the APA survey. Work, health, family, and relationships were close behind. Yet different people get stressed by different things, so identifying the source of your often takes some self reflection.
Sarah (not her real name) lived with severe migraines for three years. "I had a mean boss, two kids, and not enough money," she says. On top of that, her relationship with her daughter made stress a constant presence in her home.
"About twice a month, I woke up with a headache so bad, the only thing I could do was go to bed and throw up." When her daughter went to college and moved into her own apartment, the fights and the migraines went with her.
Getting to the source of your stress is not always so straightforward and the triggers don't always move out on their own. For many people, the best choice is to identify the trigger, then figure out how to live with it.
"Most people think of stress as a bad thing that happens to them," Sternberg tells WebMD. But there are several aspects of stress. The first is the stressful event, which typically happens whether you like it or not. Another is the stress response. "In between those two things is the person's perception of what happened, which can be modified," says Sternberg. By modifying your perception, you can modify your stress response.
Tips to Manage Stress, Reduce Headaches:
In her work as a coach and lecturer, Ferguson has observed an alarming trend. Most people know they need to reduce stress, they even know how, and most don't do anything. "The more stress you're under, the more rest you need," she says. "But the most heavily stressed people tend to rest less and less."
For those who decide to buck the trend, stress and headaches can be managed. Researchers have shown that coping with stress and actively practicing relaxation is effective in reducing migraines and headaches.
Here are some strategies to reduce stress for headache relief:
Take a break:
Stress can feel like a malfunctioning treadmill: every time you run a little faster, the treadmill speeds up. "If you're exhausted from chronic stress, taking a break is not a luxury, it's a physical necessity," says Sternberg.
Test your assumptions :
Your beliefs about a situation help determine how stressed you get. For instance, financial worries can easily spiral into deep-seated panic if left unchecked. Stop, breathe, and take stock of your concerns. Instead of gloom-and-doom scenarios, focus on your skills and resources that can help get you through.
Pay attention to your internal dialogue:
In the throes of a terrible headache, you may convince yourself the pain will never go away. This is your mind making matters worse. When you recognize a negative thought pattern, try replacing it with positive statements. For instance, "All of my other headaches went away. This one will, too."
You may have more control over stress than you think. "Problem solving is one of the best ways to manage stress," says Ferguson. "This might involve addressing the problem head on, looking for new options, or learning to tolerate a situation you can't change."
Don't Face Stress Alone:
Stress is hard to pinpoint and often comes with a lot of baggage. Something that stresses you out may not bother others. People might tell you it's all in your head but ignoring stress can give it more room to do damage.
If stress is interfering with your life, relationships, or ability to function, reach out for help. "So many people feel like they've failed if they can't manage stress on their own," says Sternberg. She compares chronic stress to appendicitis. "You wouldn't wait that out, you'd seek medical care. Unmanageable stress is no different."