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updated August 01, 2012

Headaches: Reduce stress to prevent the pain

  • SUMMARY
  • Stress can make your head hurt — and a headache can really stress you out. Either way, to reduce the pain, rein in the stress.
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MayoClinic Logo

(MayoClinic.com) You're late. You can't find your keys. You're not prepared for your breakfast meeting. And the dog just tracked mud through the living room. No wonder you have a headache.

Headaches are more likely to occur when you're stressed. In fact, stress is the most common headache trigger. But you don't need to give stress the upper hand. Take simple steps to manage your stress and help keep your headaches at bay.

The daily grind

The stress of a major life event — the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, a career change, a divorce — is undeniable. But it's not necessarily this type of stress that triggers headaches. Instead, it's often the everyday irritants — searching for lost papers, sitting in traffic, tolerating petty annoyances at work — that may erode your ability to cope. For some people, this triggers headaches.

If you tense your muscles, grind your teeth or stiffen your shoulders in response to stress, you may only make your headaches worse.

Stop the cycle

You can't avoid daily stress. But you can keep stress under control — which can help prevent headaches.

Consider relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can reduce symptoms of stress, including headaches. Making time for pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, dancing, playing a sport, reading a book or playing with your pet can help. In addition, set aside time, even if it's just 10 minutes a day, to practice relaxation. Techniques include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Deep breathing

Also, to reduce stress daily, consider these tips:

  • Simplify your life. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day, leave some things out. Ask yourself what really needs to be done, what can wait and what you can drop. It's OK to say no.
  • Seek support. Talking things out with family or friends or allowing them to help you through a difficult time can help you manage stress. Talking to a therapist might help, as well.
  • Manage your time wisely. Update your to-do list every day — both at work and at home. Delegate what you can and break large projects into manageable chunks. Tackle the rest, one task at a time.
  • Be prepared. Organize your day. Anticipate challenges. Try to keep your plan flexible, in case a headache strikes and you need to change course.
  • Let go. Try not to worry about things you can't control.
  • Adjust your attitude. If you find yourself thinking, "This can't be done," stop yourself. Think instead, "This will be tough. But I can make it work." Putting a positive spin on negative thoughts can help you work through stressful situations. If you need help with this process, consider cognitive behavioral therapy.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, take some time to clear your mind. A few slow stretches or a brisk walk may renew your energy for the task at hand. Or take a mental vacation. Imagine yourself in a calm, relaxing place.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise is a proven way to prevent — and sometimes treat — headaches. Exercise also provides a break from the stress of daily life. Be careful to warm up slowly. Sudden, intense exercise can cause headaches.
  • Eat smart. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can give you more energy and help keep stress under control.
  • Get adequate sleep. Stress can interfere with sleep, but lack of sleep can hamper your ability to cope with stress. Lack of sleep puts your body under stress and may trigger the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, during the day.
  • Laugh. Humor is a great way to relieve stress. Laughter releases endorphins, natural substances that help you feel better and maintain a positive attitude. Don't know what to laugh about? Try watching funny movies or reading a funny book.
  • Change the pace. Break away from your routine and try something new. A vacation or weekend getaway may help you develop a new outlook.
  • Break bad habits. If you smoke, quit. Cut down on caffeine and, if you drink alcohol, don't overdo.
Recognize when it's more than stress

Most headaches are nothing to worry about. But if headaches disrupt your daily activities, work or personal life, ask your doctor for help. You may be stressed, but perhaps there's something else going on as well.

Seek emergency care if your headache:

  • Is sudden and severe
  • Accompanies a fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking
  • Follows a head injury, fall or bump
  • Gets worse despite rest and over-the-counter pain medication

These signs and symptoms may indicate a medical condition that needs prompt treatment.

©1998-2013 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Terms of use.
Read this article on Mayoclinic.com.


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