Headaches are unpleasant and scary, especially when they’re frequent, severe, or last a long time. You probably know all of this already if you have anxiety, because headaches are one of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety.
Since living with anxiety tends to make you fear the worst in all situations, your headaches may often lead to your thinking you have a brain tumor, an aneurysm, or meningitis. This leads to more anxiety and the whole thing becomes a vicious circle of increasingly worse headaches and increasingly greater fears.
This post will help you to escape from that vicious circle by looking at headaches from 3 different angles. First, let’s start with how your anxiety causes your headaches in the first place.
Why Does Anxiety Cause Headaches?
To understand why anxiety causes headaches, it’s helpful to know a little bit about headaches in general. There are 2 types of headaches:
- primary headaches, which have no underlying medical cause
- secondary headaches, which do have an underlying medical cause
Headaches that are caused by anxiety are always primary headaches, so those are the kind to focus on. There are 3 kinds of primary headache:
- tension-type headaches
- cluster headaches
Almost all headaches caused by anxiety are tension-type headaches, so again, that’s the area that needs to be focused on.
Tension-type headaches are most often caused by muscle contractions and muscle spasms in the back and neck. These contractions and spasms radiate upwards into the scalp and cause the pain you feel when you have a headache.
Since anyone can get contractions and spasms in their back and neck, anyone can get tension-type headaches. But if you live with severe anxiety on a daily basis you’re much more likely to have muscle issues in the back and neck, and so you’re therefor much more likely to get tension-type headaches.
There are a couple of other reasons you’re more likely to get tension-type headaches when you have anxiety.
First, you’re more likely to experience problems getting good quality sleep when you have anxiety. Second, you’re more likely to eat unhealthy foods at times of increased anxiety. Both of these problems can cause stress, tightness, and aches in the muscles of your back and neck.
And as you now know, it’s these muscle-related problems in the back and neck that radiate into your head and cause your headaches.
So here’s how your anxiety causes your headaches:
- your anxiety, sleep, diet, and stress run you down
- you develop muscle contractions and spasms in your back and neck
- your muscle contractions and spasms radiate into your head
- you get a tension-type headache
- your headache increases your anxiety even more, your increased anxiety makes your headaches worse, and a vicious cycle begins
When you get headaches in the future, it’s important to remember this series of events that cause your headaches in the first place.
Your headache isn’t caused by a tumor or some other horrible illness. It’s caused by this simple series of events, and it can all be traced back to your anxiety as the root-cause.
What Do Headaches Caused by Anxiety Feel Like?
When my anxiety was at its worst, I’d get headaches all the time. Really bad ones. They were so bad that I was sure they were caused by something terrible, even though I knew anxiety could cause headaches.
What stopped my worrying about them was finding out what headaches caused by anxiety felt like. I did that by doing a lot of reading, and by talking to lots of other people online who were also suffering with them.
It turned out that most people who got headaches as a result of their anxiety experienced very similar symptoms to me, and that reassured me that nothing terrible was wrong with me. It made it clear that the headaches were just anxiety and nothing else.
By sharing with you what my headaches felt like, and what they felt like for the other people I talked to, you should be able to find reassurance that your headaches are also nothing more than anxiety.
So, how do anxiety-caused headaches actually feel? Here’s a list of what you might experience:
- pain in your head that can range from mild to severe
- pain that is usually a constant ache, although occasionally it can feel like a throbbing
- pain that is often focused in the hat band region – forehead, temples, and at the back of the head
- pain that is usually on both sides of your head, but for some people it can be one-sided
- pain that feels like a pressure behind your eyes
- pain that radiates into your shoulders and upper neck
- pain in your head that feels like it’s coming from your neck and back
- pain that makes you sensitive to light and loud noises, but this is more commonly seen with migraines
- pain that lasts anywhere from minutes to many days (I had a few that lasted weeks)
Tension-type headaches caused by anxiety can be very unpleasant, and they can cause many different symptoms in and around your head.
From this point on, when your anxiety causes one of these tension-type headaches, remember the above list of potential symptoms. Find reassurance in the knowledge that many other people with anxiety experience headaches that feel just like yours.
How to Stop Headaches Caused by Anxiety
As you’ve seen in this post, your headaches are caused by anxiety, stress, sleep problems, and dietary problems. Just as these areas of your life are the causes of your headaches, they’re also often the cures.
When you get a headache, the way to make it go away is to look at these areas of your life and to correct any major imbalances.
For example, the next time you get a bad headache, you might realize that you’ve not been getting enough sleep over the previous few days. The way to stop your headache, in this example, would be to get some quality sleep as soon as possible.
Or perhaps the next time you get a headache you might realize that you’ve been stressing out more than usual about a particular problem in your life. The way to stop your headache, in this example, would be to address the cause of your stress right away, to take some action to reduce or eliminate the source of your stress.
This approach is one of the secrets of dealing with your anxiety symptoms, and your anxiety in general.
You look at your anxiety, your symptoms, and your life as a series of causes and effects. When you get a headache (the effect) you look back at your recent life and you look for the causes.
What’s changed? What’s happened to you? What area of your life is different somehow? The answers to those questions will often provide you with a solution to the current problem you’re experiencing.
To help you deal with your headache in the very short-term, while you’re looking for the root-cause, you can treat your headache with over-the-counter pain killers and stress-relieving activities like hot baths, music, and massage.
Over the years, as my anxiety caused many headaches, I also built a list of general tips that I try to stick to in order to ease headaches once they’ve arrived, and to prevent them from happening in the first place.
These tips will probably help you with your own headaches too, so I want to share them with you:
- limit the time you spend looking at computer screens (this includes computers, phones, and tablets)
- don’t watch watch TV in the dark
- don’t go back to sleep when you wake up in the morning
- don’t take naps that are less than 60 minutes
- don’t read for long periods of time without taking regular breaks
- limit the time you spend driving in the dark
- do something relaxing every single day (meditation, yoga, quiet time alone, gentle walks etc.)
- reduce your intake of foods and drinks that cause headaches (caffeine, cheese, and alcohol)
Stick to the above tips as much as you can, especially when you notice a headache developing, and you should find that they help you quite a bit.
Headaches are horrible things, and when you’re living with anxiety they’re also common things. If the pain and discomfort aren’t bad enough on their own, you’ve also got the added worry that the headaches might be caused by something far worse than your anxiety.
But now that you’ve read this post, and you see the simple anxiety-based explanations for your headaches, I’m hoping that you’re starting to feel a sense of relief.
As hard as it can sometimes be to believe, your anxiety plays havoc with your body, and almost any symptom you can imagine can be caused by nothing more than your excessive anxiety.
That knowledge alone should offer you some relief from your headaches, and along with the tips in this post on how to treat and prevent your headaches in the future, you’re now in a much better position to deal with your headaches than you’ve ever been before.