There are many unpleasant side effects caused by stress but perhaps one of the most unpleasant of all is the stress headache. Unfortunately, this is also one of the more common side effects and it seems that a huge number of people are afflicted with stress headaches.
The question many people will ask regarding this problem is why something psychological like stress, is enough to cause something that is such a physical symptom? And once you know this, how do you go about curing that problem and preventing stress headaches from causing you discomfort in future?
Sometimes a stress headache can be referred to as a type of 'tension headache'. This is actually one of the most common types of headaches and is the type that many of us will think of as a 'normal' headache. This type of headache is generally painful but not severe enough to prevent you from going about your normal activities (unlike a migraine) and it is normally felt as a persistent aching sensation on one or both sides of the head. Sometimes it can also be felt behind one or both eyes. Generally it will last from 30 minutes to several hours. In unfortunate cases however, it may continue for days on end.
So what causes these stress headaches? There are a number of different things and to best understand them, it's useful to first ensure you fully understand the symptoms of stress generally.
Stress is what happens when the body responds to a threat. In order to do this, you will find that your muscles contract, your heart rate increases and your focus becomes greater. All this is the result of hormones and neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, adrenaline and dopamine.
The idea of this stress response – the fight or flight response – is to prepare the body for either combat or running in order to escape a predator or tackle an aggressor. Thus it makes sense to be more tense, more alert and more sensitive.
Unfortunately though, this same response becomes damaging when it continues for a long period of time (as it often does in modern situations). If you are having stress at work then your muscles can be constantly tensed and your senses constantly heightened. In turn, this can cause all kinds of health problems including tension headaches and stress headaches.
In a stress headache then, the muscles are tensing in the face and head. These are the muscles that control our facial expressions and our eyes etc. and when they become overworked this results in pain in the face.
At the same time, stress can heighten your sensitivity to pain, to noise and to light and this can exacerbate the symptoms. On top of all that, stress increases blood flow to certain parts of the brain.
A good demonstration of how this works is to consider the way that other tension headaches can come about. Specifically, if you are in direct sunlight and forced to squint all day, then this can very often cause bad headaches. Likewise, if you are in company with friends and smiling all day, even this can lead to headaches – this is simply because you are tensing the muscles in your head and face too much.
So now you know how stress headaches work, what can you do to treat them?
The best treatment is to try and lie down somewhere in the dark for a while – much as you would when suffering from a migraine. By removing yourself from the stressful situation you can give yourself the chance to calm down and relax. Being in the dark is a good idea because this means your eyes won't have to keep readjusting to the light – which uses your muscles in itself.
Other things that can help include gently massaging your head where the headaches are located to relax the muscles, holding a hot or cold pack to your face (which can also relax the muscles), taking a warm shower or using muscle relaxants to relax your body and mind.
Analgesics (painkillers) can also be highly effective at alleviating pain and especially ibuprofen which is a blood thinner and thus can help to reduce swelling and inflammation.
Finally, practice breathing steadily and calmly. This can help to relax the muscles and is also one of the best tonics for stress.
You know what they say: prevention is better than cure!
One of the best ways to combat stress headaches is simply to avoid them altogether and this often means avoiding stress as far as possible. This is obviously much easier said than done but there are certainly things you can do to help.
For instance, one way to avoid stress is to simply to make sure you are giving yourself adequate time off. This might mean taking regular holidays or just spreading out your annual leave. If you are scheduled to attend an event you'll find stressful and you know you get tension headaches, then make sure you plan your day so that you get a chance to step outside occasionally and calm down.
It's also a good idea to relax your face when you start to feel the symptoms of stress headache emerge and to avoid caffeine which can actually exacerbate stress symptoms.
There are also many other tools and methods you can use to address stress. CBT stands for cognitive behavioral therapy and is one of the best treatments for stress there is. If you find yourself persistently struggling with stress headaches, then seeing a cognitive behavioral therapy is a very good way to address the problem at its root.