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Reduce Stress to Prevent Headaches

By Joanne Barker
WebMD Feature

Stress is part of everyday life, as unavoidable as traffic, bills, and ringing telephones. In limited doses, stress can be useful. If you’re about to run a race or have a looming deadline, stress can help you perform at the top of your game.

Chronic stress, however, puts wear and tear on your body. Increasingly, stress is linked to a number of medical conditions, including headaches and migraines. Once they get going, headaches can generate more stress, which makes the pain worse, and so on: a self-perpetuating cycle. This article examines the link between headaches and stress, and then offers tips to reduce stress headaches.

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Life-Saving Stress vs. Stressful Stress

Long ago, stress enabled humans to outrun tigers, bears, and other predators. The fight-or-flight response, when your whole body focuses on your survival, still has value. If your house is on fire, stress helps you act quickly and gets you out alive. Problems kick in, however, when the stresses of everyday life all start to feel like being trapped inside a burning building.

“We are a heavily stressed society,” says Esther Sternberg, MD, director of the Integrative Neural Immune Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. “From wars and tragedies to trying to keep up with technology and now the economic crisis; we live with almost constant change and uncertainty.”  The stress of so much change adds up, playing havoc with nerves and muscles, and causing backaches, tension headaches, or migraines.

Stress Is on the Rise

A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) provides a snapshot of stress and its impact. In a survey of more than 2,500 Americans, more than half felt more stressed in 2008 than the previous year. The report also shed light on the physical and emotional toll. Stressed respondents reported feeing irritable and angry, lying awake at night, losing motivation and energy, and having frequent headaches, among other symptoms.

“Most of today’s stressors are mental, not physical,” says Jacquelyn Ferguson, stress management coach and author of Let Your Body Win: Stress Management Plain and Simple. You can either outrun a life-threatening tiger, or not. Either way, the situation and associated stress get resolved quickly. Mental and emotional stress, on the other hand, have a way of sticking around and slowly, invisibly wearing you down.  

The Stress-Headache Connection

Migraines, headaches, and stress are all hard to measure and difficult to treat. On a physical level, headaches start when the nerves and blood vessels around the head send pain signals to the brain. Stress is often a key player, though lack of sleep, anxiety, even changes in the weather can also trigger headaches and migraines.  

About 95% of headaches are primary headaches, meaning that they occur on their own, independent of any other underlying condition. Despite the tendency to assume the worst at 2 a.m. when your pounding cranium won’t let you sleep, the majority of headaches are simply headaches. This knowledge can provide both relief and frustration. Headaches, after all, cause real suffering, and not knowing how to tackle them makes matters worse.

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