Can Stress Cause Chronic Headaches?

By Annette GallagherJune 15, 2018No Comments

We’ve all had the occasional headache that comes from being under extreme stress, but for those who suffer from chronic headaches, it can be frustrating when friends and family suggest too much stress is causing their headaches.  

This is a problem for everyone who suffers from chronic pain. Because you can’t see it, it’s assumed by others who have never experienced it that chronic pain isn’t real. It’s all in your head. In some cases, even doctors treat their patients like chronic pain and headaches are psychological manifestations of chronic stress. But both chronic pain and chronic headaches are very real problems that can be debilitating 

Chronic pain is stressful and perpetuates a vicious cycle of pain that causes stress which makes the pain worse, leading to more stress. This is why taking steps to alleviating stress can help lessen the intensity and frequency of chronic headaches. But can chronic stress cause headaches? The answer is, well, it’s complicated. 


Stress and Headaches 

It is often implied that stress is a psychological issue. Many people hear “it’s all in your head” on a regular basis from family, friends, and even doctors. But stress – regardless of the cause – has a very real biochemical response. We’ve all felt the adrenaline shot caused by a close call on the highway or the sound of a popping balloon. 

If stress is a real biochemical reaction, why does everyone think “it’s all in your head?” There is a psychological component to the stress reaction. The cause of chronic stress is subjective, meaning what causes the stress response in one person, may not be a trigger for someone else. Because of this perception of what constitutes stress, many people think that stress itself is merely psychological.  

But when we’re under stress, our fight or flight response is triggered. This means hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream in an effort to prime the body for either a fight for our lives or running to escape imminent danger.  

But when these hormones are continuously released because of chronic stress, it can be problematic. Constantly high cortisol and adrenaline levels can wreak havoc on the body, causing chronic diseases like high blood pressure and heart problems.  

In today’s fast-paced world, chronic stress is inevitable for most people. Keeping up with bills, kids, and maintaining a household can take its toll. For people with chronic pain and headaches, day-to-day life is even more difficult. Stress caused by pain is exacerbated by environmental stresses like going to work or paying the bills. Simply getting up in the morning can be stressful for someone already under constant fear that another headache is just around the corner.  


Chronic Headache Treatment 

Alleviating chronic stress can be beneficial for those with chronic headaches because of the stress caused by the headaches. Several therapies have proven beneficial for alleviating stress including: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, also called CBT, helps people identify trigger events and teaches them to change their thought process to deal with the trigger. Substituting pessimistic and irrational thoughts with more positive and logical thoughts can help prevent the anxiety and depression that inevitably causes a headache.
  • Many people with frequent migraines take pain relief medication that can cause rebound headaches. In some cases, sufferers may attempt to prevent their pain by overusing their pain medication, propagating a vicious cycle of rebound headaches that require more pain medication causing more rebound headaches. Changes in behavior that helps the person avoid headache triggers can help prevent this cycle. Getting enough exercise, eating a proper diet, and getting enough sleep are behaviors that can help decrease the frequency of chronic headaches.  
  • Biofeedback is another technique that can be used for tension headache treatment. Biofeedback helps the patient identify physical tension that can lead to headaches. Deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can then be used to decrease tension levels preventing a headache.  
  • Prescription medication is often helpful in alleviating the depression and anxiety that is associated with chronic pain and can trigger headaches. These medications can lessen the sensation of being overwhelmed, making it easier to deal with the chronic pain in day-to-day life. 

If you suffer from chronic headaches or migraines, getting the help you need is as easy as visiting a migraine clinic like the National Headache Institute which can help you identify the stresses that trigger your headaches along with treatments that work to alleviate them. We offer state-of-the-art treatments like stem cell treatment and have three convenient locations. Contact us today to schedule an appointment