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Anxiety and Headaches: Exploring the Connection

Anxiety and Headaches: Exploring the Connection

Most people have experienced a headache one way or another. Headaches are so common that many of us have our own method of dealing with headaches. It’s surprising, though, that we don’t often associate headaches with anxiety. But there is a possible link between the two. It’s a connection, so close, in fact, that headaches could be one of the most common symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Learn more about how to recognize and manage an anxiety headache below.

Headaches can often be linked to an incoming onset of mental disorders such as anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, dysthymia, phobias including agoraphobia and simple phobias, or substance abuse disorders.

There’s a certain predisposition that people who experience chronic daily headaches to various anxiety disorders, depression, and migraines.

The kind of headache you’re having could also indicate which mental disorder may be causing it.

Anxiety Headache: Migraines

A migraine is characterized by severe pain in the head, often on one or both sides and around the temples, eye, or ear. Migraines can cause nausea, vomiting, sensitivities to light or sound. These headaches could last for a few days or as short as a few hours. They are further divided into two types.

The first type of migraine is the common migraine. This can cause nausea and vomiting. The second type is the classical migraine which can cause the same symptoms but is accompanied by an aura or other visual symptoms. These visual symptoms include flashing lights around 10 minutes up to half an hour before an attack. Or, in some severe cases, it can cause vision loss.

Tension-type headaches and anxiety

A tension-type headache is a more common and less severe type of headache. Often, tension-type headaches cause mild to moderate pain felt around the face, head, and neck. Unlike migraines, there usually aren’t any more additional symptoms aside from a headache.

There are two subtypes of tension-type headaches and these are episodic and chronic. If the tension-type headache is episodic, it means that it happens less than 15 days a month.

Chronic tension-type headaches occur 15 or more days in the month.

This type of headache is particularly common for people with GAD.

When is it an anxiety headache?

How do we know it’s an anxiety headache, then? Some symptoms that could point to anxiety as a cause is a dull or aching pain that could go up to moderate in severity.

Feeling pressure either behind the eyes or as if the perimeter of your head getting pulled tighter could also be an indicator.

Tightness or tenderness in surrounding areas like the neck, shoulder, and scalp could mean it’s anxiety causing the headache.

Anxiety-induced headaches are typically felt on both sides of the head and resolve after a few hours. More often than not, these headaches are not debilitating and very rarely do they prevent people from engaging in their usual daily activities.

If you are concerned it might be anxiety despite not having a diagnosis for it, it’s best to seek professional medical help and proper guidance to go about remedying it.

Possible remedies for anxiety headache

There are many possible remedies for anxiety headaches. But the most important and most effective one is to be on a treatment plan for both the headaches and anxiety. You could be prescribed medication that is effective for both like anxiolytics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and tricyclic antidepressants.

If it is anxiety causing the headache, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) could be used to treat the disorder itself. And in turn, the anxiety headache it causes.

For temporary relief, hot or cold showers could work well. Find a quiet space with soft lighting for resting when an anxiety headache comes on. Gentle massages on the head and neck or mindfulness practices like breathing exercises could help you relax.

For immediate temporary relief, over-the-counter medicine or painkillers may relieve it. But if it ever reaches a point wherein you need to take over-the-counter medicine to go about your daily activities, you might want to seek professional medical help.

When to see a doctor

If the anxiety headache comes on suddenly and severely, develops after a head injury, is accompanied by confusion, difficulty speaking, fever, and a stiff neck, it may be time to consult a doctor.

If the headache gets worse over time or stops you from doing regular activities, seek help the same way you would for anxiety.

Key Takeaway

All in all, the best course of action is to get an accurate diagnosis. This should be the priority if you want to resolve recurring possible anxiety headaches. This improves not only your awareness of what is precisely going on, but also improves how prepared you are to manage the condition and outcome.

Learn more about managing headaches and migraines here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Headaches

https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/related-illnesses/headaches

Accessed October 26, 2021

Managing Tension Headaches at Home

https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000421.htm

Accessed October 26, 2021

Primary headaches in patients with generalized anxiety disorder

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3094648/

Accessed October 26, 2021

Anxiety and Depression in Tension-Type Headache: A Population-Based Study

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5082613/

Accessed October 26, 2021

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8257-tension-type-headaches

Tension-Type Headaches

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20353977

Accessed October 26, 2021

Tension Headaches

https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/rt1023

Accessed October 26, 2021

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Written by Tracey Romero Updated Oct 26
Fact Checked by Bianchi Mendoza, R.N.