Many people who suffer from frequent or chronic tension headaches or migraines notice that certain triggers tend to make their headaches worse. One of the most common and persistent triggers for headaches is high levels of acute or chronic stress. Migraine headaches and tension headaches are a little different in how they work, but both types of headaches are worsened by high levels of stress.
Tension headaches are common headaches that are caused by increased muscle tension in the head, neck and shoulders. This muscle tension causes pain and noticeable stiffness. Stress is one of the main causes of tension headaches. Some people are more likely to unconsciously tense their muscles up when they are stressed than others; these people are more prone to developing tension headaches. Other behaviors caused by stress, such as clenching or gritting the teeth, can also contribute to the development of tension headaches and painful problems with the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Tension headaches are painful and annoying, but they are not usually incapacitating.
Migraine headaches are a more severe and less common type of headache. Migraines are caused by dilation and inflammation of blood vessels in the head, which is why the pain from migraine headaches is often described as “throbbing” or pulsating. Migraines tend to last longer than tension headaches, although a person can have chronic tension headaches that last a long time. Although tension headaches seem to be more directly related to the stress response, migraine headaches are also affected by stress levels. Hormones produced by the body in response to stress can directly contribute to the blood vessel dilation that causes migraine headaches. Stress can worsen an existing headache or even trigger a headache in people who are susceptible to them.
There are medical treatments for tension headaches and migraine headaches, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and drugs that help treat migraines by reducing vasodilation. In some cases, stress management is also a big part of treating and preventing headaches. A person who experiences high levels of chronic stress is also prone to other health problems, so it may be helpful for them to learn how to manage stress levels. In some cases, counseling and medications that are used to reduce anxiety may be helpful for controlling everyday stress and decreasing the number and severity of stress-related headaches.