What Are Stress Headaches and How to Relieve Them

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What are Stress Headaches?

Stress headaches, also known as tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Stress headaches have a pain that diffuses across the whole head. The pain is not local or sharp in one area.

Stress headaches are mostly categorized as primary headaches, which are triggered by things like certain food, stress, or particular actions that alter the chemicals that control sensations like the pain in the brain.

They are known to be episodic and recurring, at times they also become chronic. They get so severe such that they affect a person’s capability to perform daily tasks. Tension headaches are more like a dull pain that feels like a band is putting pressure on the head.

Unlike migraines and cluster headaches, they are not isolated to one side of the head. The pain begins at the back of your head and makes its way to the forehead. You can feel a soreness and tightness of the muscles in the neck, jaw and shoulder area.

types of headaches

Causes of Stress Headaches

  1. Stress: Being stressed causes tight muscles as well as migraines. The tight muscles squeeze the nerves leading to the head, hence causing a headache. Hormones such as cortisol are also released when one is stressed. The hormone can unbalance hormone levels in the body causing headaches.
  2. Genetics: You may inherit the tendency to be prone to tension headaches easily than other when anxious or stressed out.
  3. Physical stimuli: Factors like noise, heat, cold, bright sunlight, etc.
  4. Hormones: This mainly affects women. The fluctuating hormone patterns can cause stress headaches.
  5. Eye strain: Bad eyesight or conditions that cause eye strain like sunlight result to tension headaches.
  6. Tiredness: In most cases when you are overworked, tension headaches become part of your life as a result of strain.
  7. Hunger: If you go long periods of time without eating, or aren’t getting enough nutrients, you might experience stress headaches.
  8. Muscle strain: Physical tension in the muscles of the neck and scalp
  9. Alcohol: Due to inflammation and dehydration from alcohol one is likely to have a headache. People like to refer to them as hangovers.
  10. Inflammation: Inflammatory processes in the body that pinch nerve pathways causing headaches and pain.

Symptoms of Stress Headaches

Stress headaches are known to last anywhere from thirty minutes to several days. Some of the symptoms of stress headaches:

  • Dull aching pain referred to as muscle pain
  • Tightness across the forehead
  • Sore muscles

How to Prevent Stress Headaches

1. Dietary Changes

Poor nutrition or food allergies can trigger tension headaches. This is because the body lacks certain vitamins and nutrients. Reduce alcohol and caffeine intake because they are part of the reason headaches occur.

To avoid these headaches drinks lots of water to stay hydrated and also eat a balanced diet. Go to a nutritionist who will help you determine the areas where your diet is lacking and help you improve overall health.

2. Sleep

One of the main causes of tension headaches is not getting enough sleep or sleeping too much. To avoid the headaches, set and maintain a constant sleep schedule of going to bed and waking up. Maintain a minimum of at least eight hours of continuous sleep. Seek medical help if you have insomnia or sleep interruptions to help attain a proper night’s sleep.

3. Exercise

Regular exercise helps keep headaches at bay. You don’t have to wake up and go to the gym daily, all you have to do is indulge in regular activities like jogging, brisk walking, swimming, cycling, etc. Stretching and working out have therapeutic properties.

When you exercise, hormones get pumped up through the body, while the toxins are flushed out. As a result, your mood is also elevated. Add deep breathing and meditation as part of your exercise regime, they help in stress relief and relaxation. Exercise also improves neck muscle tension and posture.

4. Keep a Diary

If you have frequent headaches, note when, where, how long the headaches last and how severe each headache feels like in a journal. Note some of the things you think could be causing the headaches. Keeping a diary will help you know which triggers to avoid.

Make sure also to note the things that helped to make the headaches better. Note what days were different, this will contribute to having clues regarding what is wrong.

5. Massage

Press the head and face at home or go to a professional. Massage helps reduce stress by removing the knots in muscles that may have built up. Massage will provide relief at a time while the muscles go back to their normal state, without toxins and harmful acids built up in them.

6. Use Essential Oils

Oils like lavender help reduce pain from headaches naturally while still providing soft and soothing aroma therapy. You could dilute the oil in boiling water and inhale slowly. You could also apply a few drops at the temples to reduce uneasiness.

Peppermint oil will help alter blood flow to the brain. You can inhale peppermint to increase blood flow and oxygen. Basil oil also relaxes tight muscles in the neck, face and shoulder area that could be causing tension pain.

Take a look at our favorite essential oils for stress.

7. Use Moist Heat

Dampen a towel with hot or warm water and place it where you feel the tension rising. For instance, if you feel the pressure arising from your neck, put the towel on the back of your neck. If you own a microwave, you could reheat the damp towel.

8. Good Posture

Always stand up or sit up straight. Make sure you have your shoulders back, chest out, head up and stomach tight. If you tend to sit all day, get a chair with good back support. Avoid stooping down when working, elevate your work station to make sure you don’t bend down so low. Always take several breaks to stretch, whether you’re sitting or standing.

9. Fish Oil Supplementation

Fish oil helps with reducing tension headaches because it acts as an anti-inflammatory. It could be effective in treating stress headaches.

10. Eat Something Spicy

Researchers have shown that capsaicin can reduce headaches. Sprinkle cayenne or pepper flakes on your food or eat some hot peppers.

11. Ice

Placing an ice pack on top of your head may relieve a headache. You can also put the ice pack on your neck.

12. Use a Humidifier

Sinuses can trigger a headache. Dry air irritates the sinuses. Use a humidifier when you sleep, it will help keep your sinuses from getting irritated.

13. Lay down in the Dark

Take a few minutes in a quiet, dark room. The sensory input is one of the best ways to stop the pounding headaches. Whether it’s during the day or night, just chill out and tune out in a dark space.

How to Treat Stress Headaches

If you keep getting stress headaches and they don’t resolve spontaneously after a short period, there are two ways you could treat a headache:


Medications are the most traditional way to treat tension headaches. Amitriptyline is a common drug used to prevent stress headaches. It is an antidepressant that you take every day with the aim of avoiding the headaches.

It can be taken slowly to avoid side effects and can be stopped once the headaches have reduced. To prevent episodic tension-type headaches from being chronic tension-based headaches, get a preventative treatment.

The aim of using medication is to reduce the intensity and frequency of the headaches. However, the headaches might not go, but they will develop less often and be less severe. Some of the common over the counter medication are ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen.

Anti-inflammatory painkillers like ibuprofen may have side effects like stomach pains. Therefore, try and study how well you get with other painkillers before trying anti-inflammatory painkillers.

Whatever medication you decide to use, always read the leaflet that comes with the packet and check the list of possible cautions and side-effects. Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should be more cautious of the medication they take.


If you prefer homeopathic treatments instead of medication, there are alternative therapies you can indulge in. Some of the therapies include; muscle relaxation exercises, oral appliances, stress management, acupuncture and massage therapy.

You could also use neuromuscular dentistry. It utilizes orthotics which is very useful in curing tension headaches. It helps maintain a relaxed jaw position. The headaches can also be treated with stretch techniques using vapor coolant sprays or trigger point injections.

Go to a doctor if your headaches are associated with:

  • Sudden new onset pain that you never felt before
  • Confusion
  • A stiff neck or a fever
  • Speech problems
  • Seizures
  • Head trauma
  • Inability to raise the arms above your head
  • Sudden numbness or paralysis that is unexplainable


Before starting any preventative medication, make sure to follow up with your headache diary and see the patterns. If a painkiller eased your headache, also record in the journal. Present the journal to a doctor if you decide to seek medical advice. If the symptoms persist, make sure to see a specialist.

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Additional Resources

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About the author

I'm an avid reader and love anything to do with mindfulness and mental health!

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