3 Signs Your Headache Is From Stress & What To Do About It

mbg Contributor By Colleen Travers
mbg Contributor
Colleen Travers is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition, diet, fitness, and wellness trends for various publications and brands. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, SHAPE, Fit Pregnancy, Food Network, and more.
Medical review by Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D.
Integrative Neurologist
Dr. Ruhoy is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology, and received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Signs Your Headache Is From Stress & What To Do About It

Stress can do a number on not only your mental well-being but your physical health, too. Here's how to know what a stress headache feels like, why stress makes you more prone to headaches in general, and how to reduce and hopefully stop stress headaches once and for all.

A few ways stress can lead to headaches.

"There are a number of reasons people experience headaches, including food intolerance, a hormonal imbalance, and nutritional deficiencies," says Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., a family medicine physician. Spikes in cortisol, which happen in response to stress and inflammation, can also trigger headaches.

"Stress also weakens your immune system," says Gandhi. "This will predispose you to gut issues and other factors that can increase the risk of having headaches." Research published in the International Journal of Angiology found that in a group of 200 subjects with H. pylori, a type of bacteria that leads to a stomach infection and GI issues, 40% of them dealt with headaches. Once the infection was cleared, 17% of patients found their headaches disappeared with it, making a case for the connection between gut health and headaches. 

Plus, when we're stressed, we tend to tighten our shoulders and neck muscles. If we stay tensed like this for too long, it can lead to tense muscles in the scalp, causing tension headaches. Stress can also keep us up at night, and poor-quality sleep has been associated with increased migraine frequency.

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How to tell if stress is contributing to your headaches.

First things first: Before you label your head pain a stress headache, make sure there's not something more serious going on: "You want to rule out headaches associated with nausea or vomiting, extreme pounding headaches, or a headache that's also associated with nerve pain or vision changes," says Gandhi. "There can be an underlying reason for headaches, like high blood pressure, a potential aneurysm, or more." If you find your headache falls into any of these categories, it's important to make an appointment with your doctor to rule out other health issues.

But if you find that you usually experience tension headaches—which can feel like a tight band squeezing your head—that come and go (typically lasting for 30 minutes or so) during busy times, they could be stress-related. Here are a few more strategies for figuring out if stress is the cause of your headaches:

1. Take note of any major life changes.

Research published in JAMA found that tension headaches increase when you have more on your plate—be it globally, at work, home, or school. Big life changes like a new apartment or job can spark feelings of stress too, even if you're excited about them.

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2. Size up your sleep.

If you find you wake up with your head throbbing, it may be because of what's happening while you sleep. Not only can stress make you sleep less, resulting in your body pumping out even more cortisol, sleeping while stressed can lead to teeth grinding and jaw clenching—common triggers for headaches. Learning how to manage or release stress at night before bed can help offset the physical reaction to stress, helping you sleep more soundly and wake up pain-free. (And in the meantime, you can talk to your dentist about wearing a mouthguard to prevent teeth grinding and the morning headaches that come with it.)

3. Clock your cocktail and caffeine.

Ending busy days with wine or dealing with your new high-powered promotion by tripling your coffee consumption? Both habits can cause headaches since these beverages are dehydrating and interfere with sleep. In the case of alcohol (red wine in particular) those who are prone to migraines may be more sensitive to alcohol-related headaches, too. Excess daily caffeine (more than 400 mg or four cups of coffee) can also cause headaches since it triggers a withdrawal response in the body when you're not drinking it. This also happens when you combine caffeine and pain relievers if you already have a headache, leading to what's known as a rebound headache.

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How to prevent and ease stress headaches naturally.

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While you can't control all of life's events, it is possible to prevent stress headaches by taking proper precautions.

For starters, to help manage inflammation and stay relaxed throughout the day, introduce a hemp oil supplement to your routine.* Studies show that hemp oil can help manage the physiological symptoms of stress. It can also help regulate the endocannabinoid system, our body's "master regulatory system," which is thought to play a role in triggering migraines.* Magnesium has also been found to help manage headaches, in part due to its role in regulating nerve and muscle function.*

You can also keep your body loose and limber instead of tensed. According to functional medicine doctor Robin Berzin, M.D., walking for five minutes of every hour you spend at a desk can help keep tension headaches at bay. "This will not only stimulate your metabolism; it will give your muscles a chance to relax and reset," she writes on mbg.

If you already have a stress headache and want it to stop, there are a few tools that can come in handy. Gandhi recommends massaging with essential oils like lavender and peppermint to relax and relieve symptoms. Research published in the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy found that a twice-weekly, 45-minute massage session helped reduce both frequency and intensity of tension headaches. "High doses of ginger can also help with headaches," says Gandhi. Powdered forms of ginger (such as a supplement) were found in one study to be just as successful as ibuprofen in reducing pain in those with affected molars, and the herb can also increase the body's levels of serotonin—a "feel-good" chemical that helps regulate mood. 

Stress headaches can be a burden, but recognizing their signs is the first step toward treatment and prevention.

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