Anxiety is known to cause excessive worrying, irritability, and restlessness. But it can also cause physical symptoms like upset stomach, fatigue, and shallow breathing. Anxiety headaches are another common physical symptom.
If you’re stressed or worried about something, you may have tension headaches. Experiencing severe or frequent headaches can also worsen the symptoms of anxiety. Research Trusted also suggests that people who have migraine attacks may be up to five times more likely to have anxiety than people who don’t.
What are the symptoms of an anxiety headache?
Many people living with an anxiety disorder also experience either migraine or chronic tension headaches. The symptoms you experience depend on the type of headache you have.
These headaches commonly develop with stress and anxiety, though they can have other triggers.
Tension headaches might improve fairly quickly, but they may persist for several hours or days. They aren’t always severe enough to affect your daily life, but can still have a negative impact on quality of life.
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TENSION HEADACHE SYMPTOMS
- mild to moderate dull or aching pain
- pressure behind your eyes
- pressure that feels like a band around your head
- tightness in your neck and shoulder muscles
- scalp tenderness
Migraine can also be associated with anxiety. It’s not always easy to tell if you’re experiencing a migraine or tension headache, especially if you get both types of headaches.
Without medication or other treatment, a migraine attack can last for days. The pain can become so severe that it prevents you from your usual activities. Movement or physical activity can make you feel worse.
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What causes an anxiety headache?
Experts aren’t certain exactly what causes tension headaches, though there are some common triggers.
Research points to stress as a common trigger. Headaches that occur with anxiety can happen as a physical response to the emotional distress you’re experiencing.
Sensitivity to pain
It’s also believed that people who regularly get headaches may be more sensitive to pain. This sensitivity can lead to more tenderness in your muscles.
Muscle tension is one aspect of anxiety. When you feel anxious, your body responds, preparing to deal with the source of your worry.
With long-term anxiety, your body tends to stay in a state of increased alert. The tension in your muscles remains, instead of relaxing normally after the threat subsides. This contributes to headaches.
Lack of sleep
Many people with anxiety have difficulty sleeping. This is another common trigger for migraine attacks.
Changing serotonin levels in the brain may also play a role in migraine headaches. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that has many important roles in your body.
Having too much or too little serotonin in your brain can affect physical and mental health. Sudden decreases in brain serotonin levels may cause headaches through the release of neuropeptides or constricted blood vessels.
- pain that feels like a throb or pulsation
- pain on one side of your face or head
- tingling in your face, arm, or leg on one side
- seeing spots or flashing lights
- increased sensitivity to sound, light, or strong odors
- nausea and vomiting
- feeling lightheaded or fainting
- blurry vision
How to prevent an anxiety headache
It may not be possible to entirely prevent headaches, but there are some steps you can take to help decrease the frequency and severity of headaches.
Recognize your triggers
If you get migraine headaches, knowing what triggers them can help. Common migraine triggers include:
- insufficient or low-quality sleep
- hormonal changes
Making time in your day for relaxation can help reduce anxiety symptoms.
Physical exercises that can help you relax include yoga, tai chi, and deep breathing techniques. Massage and heat therapy may also be beneficial.
You can also practice mindfulness exercises like meditation, progressive relaxation therapy, and guided imagery.
Anxiety can affect your sleep, your appetite, and your overall health. Practicing self-care can help reduce anxiety symptoms, including headaches.
- Try to get between seven and nine hours of restful sleep each night.
- Make time for regular physical activity. Even a 10-minute walk each day can help.
- Make sure you’re getting enough water, from foods or liquids, to avoid dehydration.
- Avoid skipping meals. Eat nutritious meals at regular times as much as possible. Some people living with migraine find a migraine diet can help decrease headaches.
- When headaches or anxiety are severe enough to affect daily life, see a doctor or therapist.
How is anxiety headaches treated?
There are a variety of treatments for anxiety headaches, depending on the type and severity of headache you’re experiencing.
Some treatments focus on pain relief, while others focus on treating the underlying causes of anxiety.
You can treat occasional tension headaches with over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription pain-relief medications.
Common OTC medications include aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen (Aleve). For mild to moderate migraine, drugs that combine pain relief with caffeine, such as Excedrin Migraine, may also help.
Triptans are prescription drugs that can treat both migraine and tension headaches. These drugs increase serotonin levels in your brain, reducing inflammation and constricting blood vessels.
- almotriptan (Axert),
- eletriptan (Relpax),
- sumatriptan (Imitrex).
However, using pain relieving medicines to treat headaches consistently can often contribute to medication overuse headaches. Overusing medication, or taking higher doses than recommended, can also cause serious side effects.
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If over-the-counter medications don’t work well for your pain, you may want to talk to your doctor about different treatment approaches.
In some cases, a family doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe other medications, including anti-anxiety medications or muscle relaxers, to help decrease the frequency of severe, persistent headaches.
You can also try using ice or cold compresses to soothe the painful spot on your head, resting in a dark room, or both.
Other potentially helpful migraine treatment approaches include:
Acupuncture involves thin needles inserted at various points in your body. The goal of this treatment is to address the energy imbalances and blockages in your body believed to be causing pain or distress.
This approach to relaxation may help reduce pain and headache frequency. Biofeedback helps you learn, through electrodes on your skin, to recognize when you’re becoming stressed so you can relax areas of tension and control your response.
If you’re dealing with anxiety headaches, the best way to treat them may be to get help for anxiety.
Therapy for anxiety can not only improve mental health symptoms, but it can also help reduce physical symptoms such as headache.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common type of therapy used to treat anxiety. This approach helps you learn to identify and challenge negative and distressing thought patterns.
If you’re working with a therapist, make sure to mention your frequent headaches, along with other physical symptoms you’ve experienced, even if they don’t seem to relate to anxiety.
Anxiety headaches aren’t always serious, but regular or severe headaches can make your daily life difficult.
Treating anxiety headaches involves understanding why you experience them. They may often relate to periods of high anxiety or stress.
As with migraine attacks, identifying what triggers your tension headaches can help you avoid specific situations or work to control your stress response if you can’t avoid them.
It’s important to see your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of migraine or experience headaches severe enough to affect your daily life.
In general, getting help for anxiety may be the key to improvement. A therapist can help you learn to cope with anxiety’s effects and reduce the impact of worry and other negative thoughts.
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