Anxiety Headache

Are you dealing with anxiety induced headaches? Welcome to the in-depth summary that will give you fresh perspective on what is really happening.

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Dena Standley
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About anxiety-induced headaches

Headaches are a frequent and often debilitating experience. While most people will have an occasional headache, the World Health Organization indicates that as many as one in every 20 adults experiences headaches every day or nearly every day. Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. Both this type and migraine headaches are associated with stress.

If you struggle with consistent worry, you may also recognize feelings of restlessness and growing issues with irritability.

Modern life is often fraught with a heightened level of worry or anxiety. Although the connection between these feelings may appear clear to you, the connection between anxiety and physical pain may not flow intuitively for you. Headaches in particular are a common symptom of and good indication that you may be experiencing anxiety issues.

Recent events have brought a persistent low level of anxiety into most people’s lives. Whether or not your life has changed due to the current pandemic, you may be experiencing a new level of anxiety without even being aware of it. When we experience heightened levels of anxiety, we begin to hold our bodies differently. This may be such a natural and automatic process that you don’t realize that you are tightening muscles in your neck, your jaw line, or your scalp and face. However, prolonged tightening of these muscles will often result in pain that then makes you aware of this micro change in the way you are living your life.  

You may also find that you have changed aspects of your life. You may be working more, or less. You may be sleeping excessively, or not sleeping much. You may be attempting to sleep, but find that you can not sleep soundly.

When you are dealing with stress you may find that you have stopped doing the things that help you to stay healthy and enjoy your life. You may find that you have stopped preparing meals and are eating more convenient and less nutritionally well rounded meals. You may find that you are spending more time attached to technology and less time engaging in meaningful conversations with your family and friends. You may be spending more time in front of the TV or computer and engaging in escapism.

You may find that what began as small incremental changes ultimately leads you to living an existence completely different from the life you lived before you began experiencing increases in your anxiety levels. The culmination of the minor life changes you make to help you deal with increased anxiety levels can create their own issues. Poor sleep habits, poor eating habits, increases in sedentary habits, and increased engagement with technology can all feed back into an increase in feelings of anxiety, poor mood control, and lower energy levels. These life changes can also lead to further problems with sleep. It is possible to find yourself entrenched in a set of habits that lead to an increase in stress, a decrease in our ability to fight off illness, and further movement away from a healthy and holistic lifestyle that supports a healthy mind, body, and spirit.

Who struggles with anxiety induced headaches?

Studies have found that over 13% of neurology patients diagnosed with headaches also have an anxiety disorder. However, you don’t have to have a clinically identifiable anxiety disorder to find that you are dealing with increased headaches related to stress levels. Although this is the case, people dealing with frequent and persistent headaches may find it helpful to consider the connection between anxiety and headaches.

Anxiety, headaches, and depression are all impacted by our stress levels, and they are all controlled by neurotransmitters. The most common type of headache is often referred to as a tension headache.

Headaches and anxiety have a complicated relationship. Doctors believe that these two issues are related, but even they have difficulty teasing this relationship apart. One of the chemicals in your brain, serotonin, acts as a neurotransmitter carrying signals throughout your body.  Serotonin has an impact on one’s mood, pain levels, and sleep.

When people experience migraines, we see a marked increase in serotonin. This increase has been known to lead to an increased perception of anxiety. Some people will experience an increase in their anxiety levels prior to their migraines, while others will experience an increase in feelings of anxiety after the headaches have begun.

The experiences of headache and anxiety are both fairly nebulous. Although we understand some elements of how these experiences are interconnected, there remain a number of variables that can impact both of both. For example, people who are prone to headaches are likely to experience an increased number of headaches when their anxiety levels increase.

It is difficult to separate out a person's experience with anxiety, their tendency to experience headaches, and any of a number of variables that we have come to understand can work together. Things that can lead to an increase in anxiety headaches include:

  • Muscle tension
  • A lack of restful sleep
  • Increased stress levels
  • Low serotonin levels
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Other aspects that make understanding headaches difficult is the fact that other physical experiences are often associated with headaches. One can often experience dizziness when they have an increase in headaches. It is also possible to experience changes in vision, ringing in the ears, nausea and vomiting.

When do you need to see a doctor?

Most people will experience both headaches and increased anxiety levels from time to time. However, you should consult a doctor if:

  • Your headache comes on after injury to your head.
  • Your headache comes on quickly and is more severe than your typical headache.
  • Your headache is accompanied by confusion, stiffness in your neck, confusion, or a fever.
  • Your headache becomes increasingly painful.
  • Your headache keeps you from performing your usual activities.

Likewise, if you notice that anxiety is keeping you from performing your usual activities, you should consult a professional.

Find or call a neurologist if:

  • Your headache persists for more than one or two days.
  • Your headache worsens when you strain.
  • Your headaches begin early in the day.
  • You have vision changes with your headache.
  • You experience a seizure along with your headache.

How will your doctor likely investigate your anxiety headaches?

Whenever you see a new doctor for a headache, they will take your medical history. If they are concerned about changes in your headaches or a newly developed headache, they may order one or more tests to rule out concerns. Tests that may be considered include:

  • Lab tests: Headaches are often symptoms of other health conditions. Your headache could be a symptom of diabetes, thyroid disease, or an infection. Blood tests and urinalysis can be used to identify other medical issues that can be connected to your headaches.
  • X-ray of sinuses: Chronic sinus conditions and sinus infections are often connected to headaches. Your doctor may order an x-ray to rule out this option.
  • An eye exam: Eye exams can inform your doctor of signs associated with a concussion. They may also help your doctor to uncover signs of neurological damage that can be related to your headache.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG): Your doctor may order an EEG to measure your brain waves if there are concerns related to epilepsy, a possible stroke, damage caused by a head injury, inflammation, asleep disorder, or brain dysfunctions.
  • Computed Tomography Scan (CT): Often referred to as a CAT scan, this test may be ordered to help rule out the possibility that structural issues, spinal problems, bleeding, or tumors are creating your headaches.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): A MRI may be considered if you suffered a recent head injury or if your doctor is concerned about a possible tumor or structural issues that could be related to your headaches.

Which tests your doctor orders and what order they may be ordered in will depend upon your personal medical history and the potential causes that your doctor seeks to rule out.

What are the common types of headaches?

Doctors can readily identify a number of common types of headaches. Unfortunately, your personal experience with headaches may not fall into a neat definition of the headache experience. Even when you have been diagnosed with a particular type of headache, you may have experiences that don’t seem to totally fit within the typical experience of a type of headache.

This complexity comes from a number of areas. First, it is possible for an individual to suffer from more than one type of headache. It is also possible for an individual to suffer from a headache as well as an anxiety disorder. In these instances it is often difficult to determine when what one is feeling is related to a medical headache issue or the physical feelings associated with an individual’s experience of anxiety. Then there are issues like dizziness that can accompany both anxiety related issues and some individual’s experiences of headache.

Rather than focusing on a clear explanation of what you are experiencing and a “cure” for your experiences, it is often more helpful to understand ways to improve your sense of wellbeing. Unraveling your personal experience with headaches and developing a meaningful path forward may take more time than you would like. If you can find ways to improve your life rather than stressing over developing a clear and concrete understanding of these complex issues, you will often find that the symptoms that bother you the most can be controlled or alleviated even if a clear definition of the situation remains evasive.  

Tension Headaches

You may know people who talk about tension headaches. They area common fact of life for people who struggle with severe levels of anxiety whether or not they have been diagnosed with a specific anxiety disorder. Indeed, anxiety induced headaches, or tension headaches, are the most frequently reported type of headache. Tension headaches are associated with discomfort and pain in the head, neck, and scalp. When you experience a tension headache, you may feel like you have a band squeezing your head. The pain from this type of headache occurs on both sides of the head.

Migraine Headaches

Approximately one in every seven people experience migraine headaches. Women are three times as likely to be diagnosed with migraines as men. This type of headache typically develops around puberty and affects people most frequently between the ages of 35 and 45. Migraine headaches are often accompanied by changes in vision, nausea, and a sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. Migraine headaches will be felt on one side of your head.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches tend to occur in bouts referred to as cluster periods. A bout of cluster headaches can last from weeks to months. After about of cluster headaches, the sufferer may have no cluster headaches for months or years at a time. This is referred to as a period of remission.

Cluster headaches are one of the most painful types of headaches. The pain associated with these headaches will be felt around one of the eyes.

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches are felt as pressure and pain around both eyes, cheeks, and/or the forehead. A sinus headache may throb and you may experience an increase in pain if you bend over or lie down. Migraine headaches and sinus headaches have many similarities, and many people who see a doctor for sinus headaches will be diagnosed with migraines. However, this type of headache is rarely accompanied by nausea or sensitivity lights and sounds. Also those with a sinus headache are more likely to feel pain on both sides of their head while a migraine will generally result in pain on one side of the head.

What are common triggers for headaches?

Triggers associated with migraines and anxiety induced headaches include:

  • Poor quality or insufficient amounts of sleep
  • Stress and worry
  • Changes in hormones
  • Changes in caffeine consumption
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Skipping meals

If you believe that you are suffering from migraine headaches, you may want to try eating a migraine diet. People who suffer from migraine headaches may notice that they are more likely to have a migraine after eating one or more of these foods:

  • Smoked fish
  • Red wine 
  • Beer
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Cured meats
  • Foods that are preserved with nitrites or nitrates
  • Foods cooked with monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Foods that use artificial sweeteners.

Luckily, even people who suffer from frequent migraine headaches are not likely to have a negative reaction to all of these foods. However, it can be a time consuming endeavor to figure out which foods are likely to trigger your migraines.

What to do once you have gotten your headache checked out

Lots of times we think that carrying a medical issue like headaches to a professional is all we need to do. Unfortunately, issues like anxiety induced headaches aren’t the kind of diagnosis that comes with a simple cure.

If you find that your headache is the result of anxiety and stress, it may be time to take a look at life and reassess.

People who experience anxiety induced headaches or tension headaches often find relief by increasing their self-care practices. Some of the ways you can reduce your likelihood of developing anxiety related and migraine headaches include:

  • Improving the quality and amount of sleep you get. You can create restful evening rituals and practice healthy sleep hygiene to improve your quality of sleep.
  • Make consistent physical activity part of your daily life. Simple habits like adding a 10-15 minute walk to your day can help you control your anxiety levels and reduce the likelihood of developing headaches.
  • Stay hydrated. Making sure that you are drinking enough water and/or getting enough water from the foods you eat will help you to avoid dehydration that can lead to increased headaches. If you suffer from anxiety induced headaches, it can help to get into the practice of taking the time to drink a glass of water when you notice increased feelings of anxiety. Developing this habit can help you to both control your anxiety and to reduce your likelihood of developing a headache.
  • Take up mindfulness or meditation practices. Many people who suffer from frequent headaches find that adding mindfulness practices and meditation to their lives allows them to both reduce their anxiety levels and control their headaches.
  • Consider seeking a doctor or therapist to help you learn to control your anxiety levels. If you are one of those people who are bothered by constant worries, you may find that working with a counselor or therapist can help you learn skills to help you lower your experience of worry and anxiety.
  • Eat consistent nutritious meals. Many people who experience headaches find that they are more likely to get a headache when they skip meals. Others may find that specific foods seem to bring about a headache. This is particularly true for people who suffer from migraine headaches.

Honest look (inspiration)

It’s not that difficult, really, to note that each time you’re anxious, you have a headache. It’s debilitating and you cannot put your finger on it. But you cannot deny the pattern if you take an honest look.

I understand that you might feel helpless in the face of anxious reaction to life situation but I also understand (from personal experience) that only you – not your doctors or the world – hold the keys to your inner world (which might ripple out in a form of a physical headaches or else).

My point is that with all the importance of medical help it’s much more important to not rely solely on it. You have to slowly realize that you are the creator of all your life experiences no matter how it appears from the outside.

Your thoughts and beliefs “decide” how to respond to this or that, and you are the one who can re-visit and re-evaluate those mental sediments.

It’s no easy task for majority of us –to float around inside our inner landscape and examine the most noise-inducing thoughts and beliefs.

But it is absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, possible for each and every one of us.

With enough balance, determinations, and patience, we can begin budging those inner boulders that seemed mountain-like just a moment ago.

Believe me, that’s a common experience- among those of us who’s walking this path – to stare at the immensity and chaos of our inner worlds in utter disbelief that anything at all could be done by little “me”, just to find after a brief moment of perseverance that the “boulder” that seemed terrifying begins to melt under the peaceful yet unmovable presence of my awareness.

Those little experiences open the doors to what we had no access to before – for example, the way for the body and mind to heal itself, to smoothen out our anxious responses to life circumstances, and as a result – positively affect this disturbing experience of constant headaches and dizziness.

With that being said, our lives are characterized by immensely different subjective experiences. We can look at the same thing and our response might be totally opposite from the other.

It’s not enough – helpful but not enough – to be aware of the common triggers of your headaches among other people. If you really want to find relief, you have to take note of your habits and thoughts which covertly orchestrate the quality of your life and – as one surface but very loud effect of this – physical headaches.



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