Tension headache from stress? Be your own detective and solve the case
You may not know this about me, but I love Murder She Wrote. I’ve always imagined myself as I get older, cycling around like Jessica Fletcher and being invited to all kinds of parties and adventures like she does. I also like to embody Jessica, the detective, when I’m figuring out what stress is causing my tension headache.
What’s the big deal with stress headaches?
Tension headaches are caused by stress (which is why they are also called stress headaches). They are such a pain in the neck (excuse the pun). And they cause a lot of problems for me and many of you out there.
My chronic tension headaches
My tension headaches started about 6 years ago. I didn’t want to admit it to my doctor at first because I didn’t want to be subjected to a litany of medical tests and given a slew of pain medication. By the time I actually did mention something to my GP, my headaches were 2-3 times a week. And, much to my chagrin she did not once mention medical tests or taking more painkillers.
What she did do was try to go through my lifestyle and work out what could be causing the stress.
And this is the thing with tension headaches, the stress can come from anywhere.
Everyone’s stress is different, so it’s up to you to become the expert of what starts your stress headaches.
First, we looked at how I was spending my days. I was sitting for a long time either looking at my laptop screen or painting at my desk. She suggested I reconfigure my working space including doing painting at an easel to ease the pressure on my neck and shoulders. This was the physical or muscular stress.
Secondly, because emotional stress wasn’t obvious to me, I needed to go away and start examining my life a little more closely.
But first, I want to encourage you to see your doctor if you are experiencing chronic headaches. They will want to rule out any serious physical causes and make sure it is a tension or stress headache. Once you have been medically assessed, it’s time for the self-help investigation to begin.
Channeling my inner Jessica Fletcher
Using a FitBit helped somewhat. It showed me that my sleep pattern was off. And, it was true, on the nights I slept less, I was more likely to get a headache the following day.
Incorporating journaling into my routine was the most helpful. It made me more self-aware.
Self-awareness is the superpower ability to make connections between events, emotions and feelings and tie that in with how you act in different situations.
It helped me find the source of my mental or emotional strain, which had not been obvious to the naked eye.
How to get to the root cause of your tension headache from stress
There are two main root causes of human stress – physical and emotional. It’s time to take these two areas and start being strategic about finding your tension headache stress triggers.
I had not considered my art hobby to be causing a problem as I was enjoying it so much. Having recently taken up using pastels and inks, I was drawing at my desk. Not only was I bending my neck at a very severe angle to put the details on my paper, but then squinting at a computer screen to copy a reference photograph.
So, do you strain your posture in any unnatural way? Remember the head is heavy and if your posture is off center it puts unnecessary stress on the neck and shoulders. A poor posture mimics the posture of fear (hunched shoulders, frown, internally rotated arms and shoulders, and tension in our neck and shoulders).
If you want to go in more depth on this subject I highly recommend watching the most famous physiotherapists on the internet (their words, not mine – but they are very good). They have some brilliant suggestions for improving headaches AND your posture. They have more than one video on the subject, but I recommend starting with this one.
We hold a lot of tension in our muscles, especially if we are stressed or anxious (find out how to release stress by relaxing the tension in your face). Body scan meditations are very good at revealing where you are holding tension in your body. I have a body scan meditation on my YouTube channel which may help you become aware of where you are holding muscle tension. In the case of tension headaches, the stress is often centered around the neck and jaw.
Sleep is probably the biggest key to wellness. The relationship between sleep and headaches is complex and interdependent. The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep a night, children need even more. Lack of sleep is known to be linked to tension headaches in some people. And one study showed that people who slept an average of 6 hours a night had more frequent and more severe headaches than those who slept longer.
It’s best to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day because irregular sleep patterns and sleeping in for too long can also contribute to headaches. Talk to your doctor if you have sleep disturbances, such as snoring. Treating a sleep disorder could reduce your headaches.
Are you eating regular meals? Drinking enough water? Drinking too much coffee or alcohol? Skipping meals can cause your blood sugar to fluctuate. So eat regularly and preferably at the same time each day.
Get some aerobic exercise every day. Regular aerobic activity can improve your physical and mental well-being and reduce stress, but the main thing is to get the blood pumping. Choose activities you enjoy — such as walking, swimming or cycling. To avoid injury, start slowly. On headache days, even if you don’t feel like it, some light exercise, like yoga, will help get the blood pumping to the neck and brain area.
Secondary to other health issues
Sinus problems, eye strain, over exertion, diabetes, dental issues and hangovers can all lead to stress headaches. In addition, wearing too tight headphones, hats, glasses and pulling your hair too tight into a ponytail.
Women are twice as likely to get stress headaches than men, and partly this could be due to our fluctuating hormonal levels. Depending on your time of life, this could be related to puberty, your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, perimenopause or menopause. Of course, there are other hormonal reasons such as fertility treatment, chemotherapy or endometriosis. Keeping a headache diary can help you make a connection. I found this headache tracker by Healthwise very helpful.
I am particularly sensitive to noise. When I started journaling I realized how much noise I was subjected to in our home. The noise of landscapers using loud, gas-powered tools are particularly prevalent in our neighborhood.
I also homeschool, which means my son is always around. Which is wonderful, but he’s a very proficient noise-maker. On top of that, my husband works from home, and he often talks loudly on the phone when I’m trying to get peace and quiet. And someone in my house, always seems to leave a TV on, even if they’re not watching it.
You might be sensitive to light, sounds, touch. Again, watching the Physio Therapy Video guys here will explain the theory behind sensitive nerves and headaches.
It’s not the stress itself but how you react to the stress that can cause headaches. Your emotional reaction to stress could be causing your tension headache. Again, journaling or keeping a record of your stressful days will help. Journaling helps you hit the pause button while you examine your reaction to the stress. Here are some areas to focus on:
Doing too much
Little or no downtime
Start today—don’t wait for another headache to strike
I know when a tension headache strikes, you want immediate relief. But don’t forget the long-term solution. Follow the trail, pay attention to the small details, make a list of the most likely suspects and investigate them ….and you might just solve the case of your stress headache.