How Does Stress Relate to Headaches?

Stress is a ubiquitous thing among humans. Losing a loved one, unsustainable work-life balance, public speaking, pandemics, and of course headaches or migraines! With a survey put out by the American Psychological Association (APA) they concluded that “Nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. And, 2 in 3 adults (67%) say they have experienced increased stress over the course of the pandemic.” This past year has been stressful, to the point of crisis levels (APA’s words). 21% of adults report increased tension and 20% report “snapping” or getting angry very quickly.

So we know that stress leads to tension, but how does this stress relate to headaches and migraines? Well, stress is essentially a cascade of hormones that can make rapid changes in the body. It can be caused by both environmental and psychological factors. When a stressful event occurs your brain sends a signal to your amygdala which aids in emotional and fear processing. The amygdala then sends a signal to your hypothalamus which is like a command center. This command center starts the hormonal cascade. This cascade is also called the “fight or flight” response, also known as the “sympathetic system.” We essentially are really good at mobilizing a lot of energy rapidly to make sure we can react and cope with threats to our survival. With this cascade we release adrenaline which increases our heart rate, our blood pressure, and our breathing rate. We also have increased blood flow to our muscles which causes them to tense more. This process dilates our pupils, increases mental activity and makes our brains more alert, increases sweating and also increases stomach acid to help us digest things more quickly.

All of this is the “acute” stress response, but we can also have long term effects with a chronic stress response. If this cascade is triggered repeatedly, it does take a toll on the body. Research shows that chronic stress can promote clogging of arteries which increases chronic high blood pressure, and also contributes to anxiety, depression, addiction and obesity.

So how does this relate to headaches? Well, a lot of people say their headaches and migraines are caused by stress. We want to debunk that today. Stress can absolutely be a trigger and is correlated to headaches, but is not the root cause of them. Most headaches are caused by a neck issue. Certain joints in the upper part of your neck are not moving appropriately, so the muscles acting on the joints are getting more tense and not moving through their full range. We all have a pain threshold, or a line where if a stimulus surpasses this line, your brain will send out pain signals. Now, your tension line should sit well below this threshold, but people with headaches have higher tension in the areas that can trigger headaches. When you undergo stress, acute or chronic, your muscle tension increases physiologically, and your tension line then surpasses your pain threshold, hence, a headache occurs.

So, how do we combat stress? Several studies show that meditation, yoga and mindfulness practices do help decrease pain and improve quality of life for people suffering from headaches and migraines. Now, that may sound a little too “out there” for most people, but there is a physiological reason for this. Remember, stress is a nervous system response, and this type of nervous system has two parts. The sympathetic (fight or flight), and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). The fight or flight is like the gas pedal, and the opposing parasympathetic system is like the brake. We have to have both, and only one can be on at a time. If you haven’t read our last blog called “How yoga can help your headache” please go back to read through that to get some ideas on how to improve or stimulate your parasympathetic system. We have our very own nervous system “hack” by using our breath to control our breathing rate, and therefore turn down our stress level. There are lots of other tips and tricks in that blog too that you incorporate easily into your daily life.

If you’re suffering from headaches or migraines and want to find a natural solution, reach out to us at Novera:Headache Center. We offer FREE 30 minute Discovery Visits.

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