Stress is inevitable and yet so unfortunate to deal with — it can lead to a whole host of health problems and become dire if you ignore it. While there are many ways to manage stress, when it hits you in the form of extreme pain — like a headache — your go-to stress relievers often won't work. We asked the experts what these headaches are like, how to treat them, and how to prevent them from coming back, so you have everything you need to know the next time one strikes.
Can Stress Actually Cause Headaches?
Most definitely. Generally stress manifests as a tension headache. Robert Carson, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Vanderbilt University and advisor to Remedy Review, told POPSUGAR that tension headaches "often start with a tightness in the back of the neck but then spread upwards to the head, giving a feeling of constant pressure, not unlike one's head being squished in a vice."
Stress, like everything else about you, is very individual and can affect everyone differently. People who are prone to headaches are also more susceptible to having stress-induced headaches, according to Elizabeth Seng, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and head pain expert, who does research and teaches at Yeshiva University. "Stress is an interesting trigger: both increases in stress (like a project due at work) and decreases from high to low stress (like the first day of vacation) can trigger headache attacks," she said.
How to Treat a Stress Headache
Unfortunately, there's no one answer for treating headaches that result from stress. It might help you to remove the source of the stress, but not always, nor is that often feasible. Dr. Seng suggests working with your doctor to make an acute medication part of your treatment plan. (This could be prescription or over the counter, like Excedrin Extra Strength.) Ibuprofen or naproxen can also help, Dr. Carson noted, but he also suggests a variety of nonmedicinal remedies: "One of the most effective therapies for bad headaches is sleep," he said. "Physical treatments such as massage, ice packs, or warm heat (like a long shower or bubble bath) may benefit some. Acupuncture may be another option for some who don't fear needles."
Both doctors agree, though, that if you're dealing with headaches on a very regular basis, your best course of action is seeing your doctor for help. He or she might be able to find a more precise source of the headaches and put you on a regimented treatment plan.
How to Stop One Before It Starts
Of course it's easier said than done to eliminate stress from your life. However, there are many ways to better manage your stress levels, including meditation and yoga.
But you may also need to reevaluate how you think about stress. That includes identifying the things that cause you grief — this allows you to either remove them or at least be more mindful of them, explained Alex Tauberg, D.C., a sports chiropractor at Tauberg Chiropractic & Rehabilitation in Pittsburgh. "Not only does mindfulness reduce pain, but it also reduces the amount of stress," he said.
But perhaps one of the simplest tools for managing your stress comes from Purandar Amin, author of Fearless Thinking, Stress-Free Living, who argues that stress is self-made. He told POPSUGAR that the best way to beat your stress is to retrain your thought process completely. When you feel yourself "beginning to create stress, you simply think, 'There's nothing I can do to change this moment in time, and I refuse to feed the stress over the situation,'" he said.
While it's something that will absolutely take time to master, it's a worthwhile goal to learn to accept things as they are in an effort to reduce stress. But if you're still struggling to find balance and headaches are commonplace in your life, talk to your doctor.