Anxiety & Depression : How to Relieve a Stress Headache
Fight Back Against Headache Stress
Sometimes the fear of an oncoming headache can cause nearly as much discomfort as the headache itself. Here's what you can do to prevent headache stress from ruling your life.
By Wyatt Myers
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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The throbbing, the aching, the pounding — as if your migraine or tension headache weren't bad enough, researchers are now finding that for many people the pain that comes from the actual headache is only half the problem.
If you get chronic headaches or severe migraines, you might also be experiencing a phenomenon known as “anticipatory pain.” Essentially, this is anxiety that comes from constantly anticipating the arrival of headache pain.
“Anticipatory pain is a condition in which the patient believes that a headache is coming, and their dread is translated into a perception of pain,” says Anthony P. Geraci, MD, the founder and medical director of neurOasis Headache and Pain Center in New York City. “They reach for the bottle of pills and take one, which may help them in the short term — perhaps the ‘pain’ subsides, and most important, they have less anxiety.”
Research supports the notion that anticipatory pain related to migraines and other headaches can be a real problem. A recent review article conducted in France, for instance, found that people with chronic daily headaches, especially those with chronic migraines who overused medication, had a poorer quality of life and a dip in workplace productivity.
“Treating anticipatory pain is very important, as the chronic stress and anxiety can lead to chronic health problems such as hypertension and abnormal stress hormones,” says Dr. Geraci. “These can affect everything from insulin activity to proper adrenal and thyroid function.”
Getting a Handle on Headache Stress
Here’s some good news: You can squelch anticipatory pain related to headaches and take back control of your health. Here’s a strategy you can try on your own.
“I tell my patients it’s okay to take their medication, but they must first stop with pill in hand and ask, ‘Am I having head pain at this moment?’ If the answer is no, they are to put the pill back and go about their business,” says Geraci. He asks his patients to repeat this exercise every time they believe they need to pop a pain pill — only if the answer is “yes” should they actually take the medication. “It is a timeout of sorts, and if the patient is educated as to this phenomenon and its long-term consequences, they have a high chance of decreasing their medication use,” says Geraci.
Relaxation techniques can also play an important role in helping you better manage anticipatory headache pain, Geraci notes: “These include breathing exercises that simply involve taking up to 20 seconds to breathe slowly while concentrating on the air entering the lungs and taking away stress with every exhale.” He says warm baths and showers followed by a cup of herbal tea are also helpful and effective.
Meditation is perhaps the most effective alternative technique for coping with headache anticipation stress, says Geraci, but “far too many people are under the impression that [it] is too hard to learn and too time-consuming. This is just not true.” He notes that meditation can be put into action after only a few minutes with your health care provider.
Finally, by tracking your medication use, you’ll get a better sense of how much you’re actually taking and then get a better handle on how serious your headache-anxiety pattern is. You can then use this information to give your doctor a clearer picture of your situation.
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