Headaches are a common symptom of anxiety, and you may have noticed that your headaches get worse as your anxiety increases.
If you are experiencing frequent headaches, it is time to assess how your anxiety contributes. Keep reading to find the possible causes and symptoms of anxiety headaches and how you can deal with them.
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Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. For instance, you may feel anxious when delivering a speech to a large audience or before taking a test.
However, too much anxiety can be a bad thing, and excessive anxiety can lead to anxiety disorders, including the following:
When your anxiety lasts for several months and has a significant impact on your daily functioning and wellbeing, your doctor may diagnose you with an anxiety disorder. Additionally, excessive anxiety that is difficult to manage might also be classified as an anxiety disorder.
Here are some common symptoms associated with anxiety:
Excessive worry or stress
Feeling on-edge, irritated, or restless
Tiredness and fatigue
Inability to concentrate
Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
Other symptoms of anxiety include:
Increased blood pressure
Weight loss or weight gain
Being aware of these symptoms is vital because some are also the underlying causes of anxiety-related headaches.
An anxiety headache often occurs when your anxiety worsens.
Many people who experience anxiety headaches report a greater frequency of recurring tension headaches or migraine headaches. These headaches can be induced by anxiety for a number of reasons, and they have different symptoms.
You need to know the difference between tension headaches and migraines so you can identify and deal with them appropriately.
Tension headaches are more likely to occur later in the day. You may feel a sensation of tight pressure in your head. Many people describe a dull and aching pain that tends to affect both sides of the head equally.
Tension headaches can be related to muscle tension in your head, neck, or shoulders. When your muscles become tense, they can cause pain.
For some people, the pain caused by a tension headache can be quite severe. As a result, the pain can make you feel irritated, disrupt your concentration, and disturb your sleep.
You might be able to link your tension headaches to some type of muscle tension in your shoulders, neck, or jaw.
Migraine headaches take longer to develop than tension headaches, and in some cases, the symptoms can be more severe.
Common symptoms include:
An aura, like a flashing light or bright spots that appear in your vision
Loss of vision
Sensitivity to light, sound, or taste
Pins and needles sensations
Intense and throbbing headache pain on one side or both sides of your head.
The symptoms will vary between people, and you may not experience all of these symptoms during a single migraine attack.
The specific cause of migraines remains unclear. However, most people can identify triggers, such as bright lights, strong smells, certain foods (e.g., cheese, alcohol, caffeine), exercise, or stress.
What causes an anxiety headache?
There is not one single cause of an anxiety headache. To reduce your anxiety headaches, it may be worth considering the following contributing factors:
Tension headaches are a type of headache caused by muscle tension. If your anxiety causes significant muscle tension in your head, neck, or shoulders, this can create pain in your head. This could be why you are experiencing more tension headaches.
Some people start grinding or clenching their teeth when feeling anxious, which is called bruxism. It occurs when you are awake, asleep, or both. When you are sleeping, you might not be aware of this happening.
If you wake up with a sore jaw or a headache, this is a good indication that you were grinding or clenching your teeth while sleeping. Your dentist may also be able to identify bruxism based on the wear-and-tear pattern of your teeth.
Bruxism causes tension within your jaw, which can lead to a headache.
If your anxiety is causing you to lose sleep, this may also be contributing to your anxiety headaches.
When you miss some sleep, your body can feel run down, and it becomes more challenging for you to concentrate. As a result, you will be more prone to feeling anxious and susceptible to developing a headache.
In general, stress from anxiety causes headaches¹. The stress response can create muscle tension, make you feel fatigued, and disturb your concentration. This can make you more susceptible to headaches.
Some research suggests that people who experience anxiety are also likely to have a serotonin imbalance². A sudden decrease in your serotonin levels has been linked to headaches.
It is easy to skip eating and drinking when you feel anxious, especially if you experience digestive issues with your anxiety. Because of this, you might be more prone to dehydration.
Dehydration³ can lead to fatigue, mood changes, and headaches. Hence, your anxiety headache could be linked to dehydration if you are not drinking enough fluids.
In general, the way you treat an anxiety headache would be similar to how you would treat any other headache. Examples include getting some rest, drinking more water, and taking over-the-counter medications if required. Your doctor may recommend more specific medications for migraine headaches.
However, if you can pinpoint some of the underlying causes of your anxiety headache, you might be able to find more effective ways to manage and prevent them.
Here are some ways to deal with anxiety headaches.
Address your muscle tension
Identifying the source of your muscle tension can help address it and reduce tension headaches. Here are some recommendations to reduce muscle tension:
Exercise and do some stretching
Take regular breaks
Use a heat pack on tense muscles
Get a massage
Try relaxation and breathing exercises
Do some relaxation exercises
Breathing and relaxation exercises help reduce muscle tension and anxiety. These exercises can bring your attention to the tightness in your muscles and release accumulated muscle tension.
The exercises also dampen the fight-or-flight response, which reduces anxiety symptoms.
Use a hot or cold pack
Use a hot or cold pack to soothe tense muscles when you have a tension headache. Put the pack on your shoulders, on the back of your neck, or on your forehead.
Have a relaxing bath or shower
Additionally, some people get relief from headaches by having a warm shower or bath, which can loosen tight muscles, help you relax, and have a soothing effect.
Stop grinding or clenching your teeth
If you grind or clench your teeth⁴, simply bringing awareness to the habit can help you avoid doing it. If you tend to do it at night, good sleep hygiene and reduced caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine intake may help.
Speak with your doctor or dentist for further options to manage teeth grinding, especially at night.
Improve your sleep
Creating good sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene, can improve sleep quality and ease some of your anxiety.
Experts recommend that you try the following strategies to improve your sleep⁵:
Keep a consistent sleep routine, including going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning
Ensure that your bedroom is relaxing, quiet, and dark
Keep electronic devices away from your bed
Avoid caffeine after lunch
Have a light dinner or avoid eating a large meal close to bedtime
Avoid or limit alcohol
Exercise during the day so that your body will feel more tired at night
Find a quiet room
If you are experiencing a migraine headache, find a quiet and dark room to recover more quickly. This is especially helpful if you suffer from light or noise sensitivities during migraines.
If you are struggling to get your anxiety headaches under control, if they are occurring frequently, or if they are affecting your ability to go about your regular activities, consult your doctor.
There might be other contributing factors to your headaches that you are not aware of. It is worthwhile discussing your symptoms with your doctor to identify additional causes of your headaches, if any.
If you experience any severe pain, a change in your symptoms, or a new type of headache, make sure to mention it as well during your consultation.
Headaches are a common symptom of anxiety. The two main headache types associated with anxiety are tension headaches and migraines.
There are a number of suitable treatments you can try at home for these headaches. However, if these headaches change in nature or have a significant impact on your function and wellbeing, consult your doctor.
The 58th annual scientific meeting | American Migraine Foundation
Tips for better sleep | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention