Why Does My Head Hurt? Is It Stress Related?
By: Nicole Beasley
Updated February 10, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault
In the medical world, headaches are still a widely-debated topic. Many of the causes of headaches are still a mystery to professionals, however, there are some general rules which been established over time.
Headaches can be more complicated than many people realize. Different kinds can have their own set of symptoms, happen for unique and individual reasons, and require varying treatments.
A minor headache, which should not cause much concern, is little more than a nuisance that's relieved by an over-the-counter pain reliever, some food or coffee, or a short rest. But if your headache seems extreme or unusual, that can be indication of something more serious, which deserves direct, and sometimes immediate, attention. Such severe headaches could be evidence of a stroke, a tumor, or a blood clot. Such problems are rare. Still, you should know when a headache needs urgent care and how to control the vast majority of headaches that are not threatening to your health.
Stress and headaches are considered to go hand-in-hand, and it's not difficult to see why. When we have a million thoughts running through our heads, it's easy to get overwhelmed with information and begin to feel as though there's a fire burning in our brains.
Types of Headaches
There are over 300 types of headaches, of which only about 10% have a known cause. A primary headache is a stand-alone illness, caused directly by the overactivity of, or problems with, pain-sensitive structures in your head. A primary headache is not a symptom of an underlying disease. Common primary headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches.
Tension: Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache, occurring in about three out of every four adults at some time or another. They are usually mild to moderate in severity and do not occur frequently. But a few people experience severe tension headaches, some even suffer with them three to four times a week. Tension-type headaches can be either episodic or chronic. Episodic attacks are usually a few hours in duration, but they can last for several days. In order for a tension headache to be assessed as chronic, it must occur for 15 or more days in a month, for at least 3 months in a row.
The typical tension headache produces a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. People with strong tension headaches may feel like their head is in a vise. The shoulders and neck can also ache. Some tension headaches are triggered by fatigue, emotional stress, or problems involving the muscles or joints of the neck or jaw. Most last for 20 minutes to two hours.
If you experience frequent tension headaches, try to identify triggers in order to avoid them. Try not to get overtired or skip meals. Learn relaxation techniques; yoga is particularly helpful because it can relax both your mind and your body. A bite plate may be recommended if you clench your jaw or grind your teeth at night.
Migraines: These are headaches that are defined by their intense length. Migraines can last for days at a time, and usually occur in one side of the head. Migraines are not thought to be directly linked to stress, however, those suffering from stress may be more susceptible to suffering from migraines.
Migraines occur less often than tension-type headaches, but they are usually much more severe. They are two to three times more common in women than men, but 6% to 8% of all men have migraines.
Neurologists believe that migraines are caused by changes in the brain's blood flow and nerve cell activity. Genetics are clearly implicated in migraines, since 70% of migraine sufferers have at least one close relative who also experiences such headaches.
Although a migraine can appear without warning, it is often set off precipitated by a trigger. While triggers vary from person to person, an individual is likely to remain sensitive to the same triggers over time.
Cluster: Cluster headaches are uncommon but very severe headaches, and they occur five times more often in men than women. While both men and women can get cluster headaches, the typical patient is a middle-aged man with a history of smoking. This issue is so-named because the headaches do come in clusters, including one to eight headaches a day across a one- to three-month period every year or two, and often recurring at the same time of year.
Secondary headaches: these are headaches which are direct effects of more severe conditions such as brain tumors or disease. Although a person in such a tragic circumstance would likely be suffering intense stress during such an ordeal, stress is not thought to be a primary factor in these types of head pain.
Some examples of secondary headaches include:
External compression headaches (a result of pressure-causing headgear)
Ice cream headaches (most commonly called 'brain freeze')
Medication overuse headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication, inconsistent with instructions or medical advice)
Sinus headaches (created by inflammation and congestion in sinus cavities)
Spinal headaches (caused by low pressure or volume of cerebrospinal fluid)
Thunderclap headaches (a group of disorders that involves sudden, severe headaches with multiple causes)
Stress & Headaches
People often blame their headaches on stress, but there is no official headache classification of "stress headaches." However, stress certainly plays a role in making any headache worse. Headaches are more likely to occur when you're feeling stressed. Stress is a common trigger of tension-type headaches and migraine, and can trigger other types of headaches or cause them to get worse.
For example, while stress is considered to be caused by major events in a person's life (planning a wedding, changing careers, giving birth), it is not these types of events that cause tension headaches. All of these are long-term incidents which can be addressed over a lengthy timeline. Instead, it is more likely to be the every-day irritations which cause the type of stress that subsequently triggers tension headaches; sitting in traffic, enduring irritating noises, hectic workdays, losing your keys, etc.
What Can I Do To Help With My Headaches?
If your headaches are only suffered for short periods of time and crop-up during times of exhaustion, they are likely stress-related and can be addressed as such. As simple as it may seem, relaxation techniques such as regular exercise, proper diet, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, and taking regular breaks can address these types of headaches relatively quickly.
Consider these tips to reduce your stress which is contributing to your headaches:
Simplify your life. Leave some things out. It's OK to say no.
Exercise regularly. Exercise is a proven way to prevent, or even treat, headaches. Do be careful to warm up slowly, though. Sudden, intense, exercise can actually cause headaches.
Eat smart. A healthy diet, including in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can give you more energy and help reduce stress.
Get adequate sleep. Stress can interfere with sleep, but lack of sleep can hamper your ability to cope with stress.
Seek support. Talking things out can help you manage stress. Talking to a therapist might help, as well.
Manage your time wisely. Delegate what you can; divide large projects into manageable chunks.
Try not to worry about things you can't control.
Adjust your attitude. Putting a positive spin on negative thoughts can help you work through stressful situations. If you need help with this process, consider cognitive behavioral therapy.
Take breaks when needed. If you feel overwhelmed, take some time to clear your mind. A few slow stretches or a brisk walk may renew your energy.
Laugh. Humor is an excellent way to relieve stress. Laughter releases endorphins, that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude.
Break bad habits. If you smoke, quit. Cut down on caffeine and, if you drink alcohol, do so responsibly.
If your headaches are significantly lengthy, unusually intense, or unresponsive to appropriate medication, immediately look for constant medical help. It also is important to seek professional help in order to address their root cause. In many cases, headaches can be brought on due to factors unrelated to stress - factors that are not severe by any means. Such factors are often out of our control and it may just be a case of waiting them out. However, intense headaches can sometimes be a sign of a more serious underlying issue, so it is important to address them with urgency.
Once you have ruled out any medical, or functional, source of your headaches, if you would like to talk with a professional counselor about stress you are experiencing, we have over 2000 licensed counselors available through BetterHelp.com. Help is available.
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