Just like that, another headache.
It’s the last thing you need right now, and yet here it is - another unwelcome thump, thump, thump...
As the day goes on it continues to gnaw at you, your neck and shoulders tighten and before you know it you’re tired, irritable and just feel… urgh.
You’ve been here before.
As the pain from a headache continues, you feel your muscles getting tighter and tighter until it starts to feel like you’re made of concrete - which makes everything feel 100 times worse.
If you regularly suffer from headaches, tight neck and shoulders, there’s a good chance stress is playing a part in it.
A common cause of headaches, stress is probably something everyone has experienced at various points in their lives. Unfortunately for many, sometimes our response to stress and the pain it causes can actually feed the pain cycle we experience. For example, you might forget to drink and eat regularly, not be sleeping as well, and even take up other unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking alcohol as a way of coping.
You already know it’s important to develop healthy ways to manage stress. But often it is hard to do the things you know you should and need to do. Life gets in the way and can make it feel impossible to know where to start, what is best, and how to keep the good habits going.
In this article, icpc Health Massage Therapist, Nicole Christie shares her insights on how to treat headaches by managing stress. Read on to learn:
how our body’s reaction to stress hasn’t changed since prehistoric times
4 ways to start effectively managing your stress headaches today
when to consult a professional about your headaches
why it’s important to limit stress for good health
Why Does Stress Cause Pain?
In today’s modern world, the regular stresses we experience are very different compared to the era of the neanderthal. However, the body still reacts the exact same way.
You might not be being chased by a predator very often, but worries about work, finances or family are still seen by the body and nervous system as threats and the same ‘fight or flight’ response is activated.
When we perceive a threat our nervous system responds by flooding the body with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, directing blood to the skeletal muscles to help you ‘escape’ the danger. Once the stressful event is over, the body calms down, bringing hormone levels back to normal and allowing you to recover.
Although the body reacts to mental stress the same way it does to physical danger (preparing to fight or run away), the problem with ongoing mental stress is that the ‘threat’ doesn’t simply disappear.
When we continue to experience stress, the body is using up all its resources, causing our muscles to ache from them being in constant tension in a bid to protect us from injury. As our bodies lose the ability to cope physically, we’ll eventually:
feel more tired
become more sensitive to pain
be more susceptible to illness.
This horrible cycle of pain, fatigue and stress that can seem never-ending - but there is a way forward.
You need to break the cycle.
How Can I Treat My Stress Headaches Quickly?
Unfortunately, the mental strain from stress is not like a broken arm you can see and place a cast on for it to heal. If it were, we might be quicker to realise the damage happening before our body starts to tell us through symptoms like headaches, neck and back pain, digestive problems, insomnia and more.
Recognising that stress is likely the trigger of your headaches is one of the first steps to tackling it. Once you know and acknowledge you are going through it, you can take action.
Some things to try that can help you start to take control of your headaches and tension today include:
1. Stay hydrated
It sounds so simple, but it’s really easy to forget to drink regularly. Keeping a water bottle with you at all times and taking sips throughout the day is a good way of ensuring you are maintaining good fluid levels
2. Take some time out
Taking a short walk, sitting in a quiet room, listening to music or a short podcast – anything that focuses your attention on something in the present and distracts your mind from any stressful thoughts. Even if it’s only five minutes to have some time away from everything, this can make a big difference to your stress levels and how you see things.
Again, simple right? The funny thing is that when we experience pain and/or stress, we tend to either hold our breath or our breathing can become very shallow or erratic. Taking some deep belly breaths can help calm the nervous system. Focus on breathing in through the nose, ensuring to expand the belly rather than chest, and breathe out through the mouth.
Make the breaths deep and controlled.
One way to help relax the tense muscles developing around your upper back, neck and shoulders is to gently stretch them. Try tilting your head to one side -only as far as is comfortable- and then gently nod up and down while maintaining this position. Repeat on the other side. You can also try opening up the chest to relax the upper back by lying down on a rolled up towel. Place the towel lengthways along the middle of your back, relax and let gravity take your shoulders down to the floor.
(Be mindful of any new pain or increase in pain and this is your body’s alarm telling you something isn’t right. If this happens you need to stop immediately.)
When Should I See A Professional About My Headaches?
If your headaches are recurring every couple of days, getting worse, affecting your daily activities or sleep, consider speaking to your GP.
These days we are spending so much time on phones, tablets and computers, sometimes we are unaware that it is in fact ongoing eye strain causing headaches. It might also be worth making an appointment with your optician if you haven’t had a sight test recently.
Why It’s Important To Limit Stress For Good Health
Remember, if the body remains in a constant state of fight or flight, it will eventually wear itself out, meaning:
you will struggle to recover and become more sensitive to pain
your immune system will not be able to fight against illness
you could start to feel increasingly unwell and tired
you may experience anxiety, mood swings and even depression.
Identifying when you are stressed, and your triggers is a good place to start in helping you take swift action against pain, but it's important to look at the bigger picture.
Try to find ways of addressing stress and the associated physical and mental issues it creates. Identifying triggers and finding and implementing coping strategies so that stress, as well as pain does not become chronic.
More on this in Part 2, coming soon...
Nicole Christie is icpc Health’s resident Massage Therapist, specialising in Remedial and Sports, Swedish and Oncology Massage in Aberdeenshire.
To arrange an appointment with Nicole, please give us a call on 01467 633 444
or book online at icpcHealth.com.