Many people experience anxiety and headaches. These two experiences may be linked — and there are solutions for managing both.
Anxiety, which may cause excessive worrying, irritability, and restlessness, is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 31.1% of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Many people who experience anxiety also experience migraine attacks. According to the nonprofit American Migraine Foundation, about half of people in the United States living with migraine also have anxiety.
The foundation also points out that people with migraine are two to five times more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety than those without the condition.
So, if you’ve experienced one or both, you’re not alone — and there are tools to help you cope.
Two types of headaches most commonly associated with anxiety are tension headaches and migraine attacks.
Tension headaches, while they can impair your quality of life, aren’t always disruptive to your daily routine and may improve fairly quickly.
Symptoms of a tension headache may include:
- tense muscles around the neck, head, and face
- tender neck, shoulders, and scalp
- squeezing pain around the head that may feel like a tight band
- mild to moderate pain
- dull or aching pain
On the other hand, migraine attacks can be severe enough to disrupt your daily activities and may get worse through physical activity.
Symptoms of a migraine attack include:
- severe pain, usually only on one side of the head
- severe pain that lasts a few hours to a few days
- throbbing, pounding, or pulsating pain
- sensitivity to light, noise, or smells
- nausea and vomiting
- migraine aura, which are sensory symptoms like vision distortions that may happen before or during a migraine attack
Based on the research, headaches, anxiety, and depression may be directly linked through a common neurological issue or indirectly linked through unintended side effects if the person with anxiety or depression is being treated with medication.
Moreover, going to sleep with a headache could lead to a lack of sleep, contributing to anxiety for some people. Or, if you have a headache, you may experience anxiety and worry about being unable to perform properly at work or during an important test.
Anxiety may also set off your fight, flight, or freeze response. This response could lead to increased muscle tension (particularly the muscles in your face, head, and neck), which may cause headaches.
Still, there are methods you can use to manage these anxiety headaches.
There are many supportive ways to manage anxiety headaches, and they vary for everyone. Not only do techniques vary from person to person, but they also depend on the type and severity of headache you’re experiencing.
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription pain-relief medications are available to treat anxiety headaches — both for tension headaches and migraine attacks.
If these medications don’t work well to manage the pain, you can also discuss other approaches with a healthcare professional, such as a:
- headache specialist (typically a neurologist)
- psychiatrist (if you’re being treated for anxiety or depression)
- your primary care doctor
For instance, you may find more relief by targeting your anxiety through anti-anxiety medications or muscle relaxants to decrease the severity or frequency of your headaches.
To know whether medication is the right step for you, you can speak with a healthcare professional.
Therapy could be a good option to help improve your mental health symptoms while also reducing physical symptoms, such as headaches, that may occur from anxiety.
If you’re working with a therapist, it’s a good idea to let them know about your headaches (even if you’re not sure they’re related). Also let them know whether you’re currently working with a healthcare professional to address them. Different healthcare professionals can collaborate care.
Together, you and your therapist may be able to uncover what’s causing your headaches or what situations may trigger them to manage the source itself.
A good night’s rest
If you find yourself up at night worrying or feeling tired throughout the day, this lack of sleep may lead to a headache. Quality sleep can help you restore depleted energy reserves, increasing the time it takes from feeling anxiety to getting a headache.
One of the best ways to increase the quality of your sleep is through consistency.
In his book “Why We Sleep,” Dr. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests you consider going to bed and waking up at the same time each day because, as creatures of habits, people have a hard time adjusting to changes in sleep patterns.
Exercise can be a great method for managing anxiety headaches. A 2019 study found that certain movement exercises and complementary practices can improve symptoms of depression and anxiety disorder.
Some of these complementary practices include:
- tai chi
- qi gong
In the research, yoga, in particular, was found to have positive effects in people with anxiety disorders. Plus, as a complementary treatment, exercise was found to be moderately beneficial for anxiety and depressive disorders, including for:
If you experience anxiety headaches, progressive muscle relaxation could be another tool to help you manage them. This specific technique involves focusing, contracting, and relaxing muscle groups to increase awareness and increase relaxation.
To try this exercise yourself:
- Find a comfortable position, such as lying down while supporting your head and neck.
- With your eyes closed, start to focus on your physical body.
- Begin by tensing each muscle group — one by one — for a count of 5 seconds, and then relax.
- Consider attempting this exercise a couple of times, starting once with your head and once with your toes, to see which one feels better for you.
To help manage your anxiety, grounding techniques could provide relief. There are many types of grounding techniques to choose from, such as:
- physical techniques, like taking a walk
- mental techniques, like playing a memory game
- soothing techniques, like sitting with your pet
One simple physical technique you could attempt is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. To try it, look around and name:
- five things you can see
- four things you can touch
- three things you can hear
- two things you can smell
- one thing you can taste
Though clinical research is lacking on whether grounding techniques may help relieve anxiety headaches specifically, reducing your anxiety levels may allow you to reduce tension in your body that may be contributing to your headaches.
From self-awareness to self-care, feel free to indulge in nourishing practices that can help your headache and anxiety recovery.
From deep breathing exercises to acupressure, there are a handful of ways to bring more self-care into your life. One such way is mindfulness-based meditation. Recent studies have shown it has positive effects on depression.
It’s important to note that self-care can also look different for everyone, and it’s OK to take your time to find what works for you. Consider trying a few other exercises and see which one helps you feel the most at ease.
Remember that self-care can even be as simple as staying hydrated, eating nutritious food, and getting in physical activity.
Plus, it may prevent episodic migraine from becoming chronic migraine. The study found that the following behavioral treatments may be effective options for migraine prevention:
- relaxation training
- thermal biofeedback combined with relaxation training
- electromyographic biofeedback
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
While this study is specific to migraine, there are ways you could try to prevent headaches overall.
One such step may be to figure out what tends to trigger your anxiety headaches.
Start by tracking when your headache occurs and what’s happening around you at that moment to see whether there’s a common thread. Tracking this information over time could be crucial in helping you prevent headaches moving forward.
Another step you can take is to incorporate more of the management tools suggested above into your everyday life. See these tools as preventive rather than just remedial.
Consider inviting more calming routines, movement, and rest into your daily life — even when anxiety or headaches are not present.
Prevention can look different for everyone, but it is possible. The key is getting more aware of what affects you, what helps you feel better, and what helps you regain control.
Life is unpredictable, so while you likely can’t avoid every anxiety-provoking situation, you can take steps to manage your anxiety and your headaches over time.
The better you get to know yourself and try different treatments, the better equipped you may feel about managing your anxiety headaches.
It may be reassuring to know that it’s OK to make your well-being a priority, and that there are strategies and tools to help you.
Try to be patient in finding the solutions that work for you, and remember — you’re not alone in this experience, and you do have options.