Anxiety and headaches: Links and how to get relief
Anxiety and headaches often occur together. Relaxation techniques, counseling, and medication may help manage both.
People with anxiety disorders may have symptoms that interfere with their sleep, relationships, physical health, work or school activities, and everyday life.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder.
Along with the emotional symptoms of tension and dread, anxiety can cause physical symptoms, such as sweating, a rapid heartbeat, digestive problems, and headaches.
Learn more about the link between anxiety and headaches in this article.
Anxiety and headaches
When it comes to anxiety, headaches can be both a symptom and a cause.
The most common form of headache is called a tension headache. Tension headaches:
- usually cause mild-to-moderate pain, although they can sometimes become quite severe
- typically develop on both sides of the head
- can occur alongside soreness or stiffness in the shoulders and neck
- usually get better within a few hours
- rarely prevent people from engaging in their daily activities
Migraine headaches are associated with more severe pain and disability.
Researchers are exploring the connection between anxiety and headache disorders. Studies have found that people who have frequent migraine headaches tend to experience anxiety and depression more than other people.
A migraine headache:
- usually causes moderate-to-severe throbbing pain
- typically develops on one side of the head and may spread
- can occur alongside nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light
- can last for hours or even days
- can be disabling and may prevent people from engaging in their daily activities
- may appear following visual disturbances, such as shimmering shapes, flashing lights, or a halo
Causes and triggers
Scientists are exploring the link between anxiety and headaches. It is not yet clear whether the anxiety or the headache is the causative factor, or whether the answer would be the same in every situation.
The American Migraine Foundation have reported that 20% of people with episodic migraine and 30–50% of those with chronic migraine have anxiety.
A 2016 study found that children with anxiety were likely to have more headaches than children without anxiety. The researchers also concluded that anxiety symptoms were more severe among the children who experienced headaches.
Research continues on what causes anxiety, headaches, and both together.
Behaviors that people display when they are feeling stressed, such as holding their neck in a tense position, grinding their teeth, or chewing gum, can cause a tension headache or trigger a migraine episode.
Other triggers for headache disorders that have links to anxiety include:
- poor sleeping habits
- either too much or too little caffeine
- excessive alcohol use
- hormonal changes, such as those that occur due to medication or at the start of a menstrual period
- barometric changes
- dietary factors, with chocolate, caffeine, and red wine being common culprits
- eye strain
Treatment and home remedies
Treatment options for anxiety and headache disorders include medications, therapy, and integrative or home remedies.
People with anxiety may benefit from seeing a psychologist or other type of therapist.
In addition to recommending therapy, a doctor may prescribe one of the following headache preventive treatments:
- Antidepressants: These drugs can take weeks to work, but doctors often use them as a first-line treatment to help people feel better.
- Anti-anxiety drugs: Medications such as benzodiazepines can help with a flare-up, but there is a risk of dependence. People should only these drugs as the doctor prescribes,
- Beta-blockers: Doctors might prescribe these high blood pressure medications for the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling and a racing heart.
Migraine frequently requires a prescription medication, which people can take at different times for different purposes. For example, they might take it:
- daily for prevention
- at symptom onset, to stop an attack
- during an attack, for pain
Other practices that may help people manage both headaches and anxiety include:
- Relaxation: Yoga, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and other techniques can help people learn how to reduce the physical response to stress.
- Biofeedback: Doctors can use biofeedback to help people sense changes in their body and work with them to reduce the stress response.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people learn new ways of thinking about and reacting to challenges, including pain and anxiety.
- Support groups: Peer-to-peer counseling can be helpful for people in many different situations, including those living with anxiety and chronic pain.
When to see a doctor
People experiencing anxiety, a headache, or a combination of the two should see a doctor if the headache:
- comes on suddenly and is unusually severe
- develops after a head injury
- occurs with a fever, difficulty speaking, confusion, or a stiff neck
- keeps getting worse
- prevents regular activities
Similarly, if anxiety is interfering with an individual’s ability to pursue their regular activities, they should seek treatment.
Anxiety and headaches are common yet serious challenges to mental and physical health. They can occur separately or together, and they may influence each other.
A range of treatments, from medications to therapy, is available to treat headaches and anxiety.