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Stress-Reduction for Tension Headaches

Use stress management techniques such as relaxation and biofeedback to bust that throbbing pain.

Tension Headaches

They don’t call it a “tension” headache for nothing. The pain feels like a band of pressure and throbbing on the top, sides and back of the head. (You probably know firsthand exactly the kind of pain we’re talking about — more than 80 percent of us have experienced one of these headaches.) The fact is that stress is the number one trigger for tension headaches.

While you might be tempted to just reach for an over-the-counter pain medication when a headache hits, learning to manage your stress could prevent that throbbing altogether! For chronic headache sufferers, research shows that combining medication and stress management techniques works better than either alone. (And really, do you enjoy being stressed?)

The good news is that there’s a stress-busting technique to fit any schedule, lifestyle or personal preference. From deep breathing, yoga and tai chi to meditation, biofeedback and progressive muscle relaxation, the ways to unwind are almost as varied as the things that can get you wound up in the first place.

Plus, by controlling your stress, you’ll not only lessen your pain, you’ll also reduce its multiple negative effects on your body — from increasing blood pressure to worsening insulin resistance. That alone should help motivate you to stomp out excess stress.

Here are some proven ways to reduce your headache pain and ease your stress overall.

QUIZ: Are You Feeling Stressed?

Try This

When a headache strikes, imagine a soothing environment — an ocean shore or a tranquil waterfall. Focus on the sound of the waves rolling in and the wind gently blowing through the trees. By concentrating on the details, your mind becomes absorbed in the imagery, which lessens the pain of your headache.

Track It Down
Keep a headache diary to identify the sources of your tension-type headaches. When a headache sets in, record the date and time. Note how long you slept the night before, what you were doing just before the headache, any unusual or added stress in your life, how long it lasts and what you do to stop the pain. Download a premade form for free at the National Headache Foundation’s website.

In addition to helping you spot patterns and triggers on your own, if your headaches become severe and frequent enough (say, more than 15 a month) to seek medical attention, this record will provide your doctor with many clues to what’s underlying your condition.

Get Hooked Up
If you suffer from chronic headaches, speak to your doctor about biofeedback therapy, Dr. Kunkel recommends. During biofeedback, a series of sensors are connected to your body; these detect changes in muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature and other markers of stress.

Working with a trained therapist, you learn to recognize the physical signs of your stress, identify what’s causing that reaction and how to reduce the tension through effective physical skills. After several sessions, you’re able to use those lessons by applying them to situations in your daily life without the aid of a biofeedback machine. 

Follow the Guide
Another form of therapy shown to help chronic sufferers: Guided imagery (or “visualization”). In one study of patients with chronic tension-type headaches, those who listened to a guided imagery tape every day for a month had fewer — and less severe — headaches than patients who did not listen to the tape. Multiple studies have also found guided imagery to reduce pain and anxiety in a wide variety of settings.

One of the most appealing features about imagery is that almost anyone can use it — and you can invent your own imagery (say, imagining your perfect beach vacation), or you can listen to imagery that's been created for you.

Be Present
Mindfulness meditation — essentially, the practice of being fully present in the moment — has been shown in numerous studies to reduce stress in a wide variety of situations. The goal of this type of meditation is not so much to clear your mind of any thoughts, but to acknowledge and be conscious of them as you have them — and allow yourself to let go of them and bring your attention back to the present. In other words, you stop thinking about the conversation you had two hours ago with your mother-in-law, boss or frenemy and what you might have said differently, and get your mind firmly planted in the here and now. The aim is to achieve greater calmness, physical relaxation and psychological balance.

MORE: Meditate for Stress Relief

Mindfulness meditation begins by spending several minutes focusing solely on your breathing; as thoughts arise, you acknowledge that you are thinking, but then return your concentration to your breathing.

— by Julie Evans

They don’t call it a “tension” headache for nothing. The pain feels like a band of pressure and throbbing on the top, sides and back of the head. (You probably know firsthand exactly the kind of pain we’re talking about — more than 80 percent of us have experienced one of these headaches.) The fact is that stress is the number one trigger for tension headaches.

While you might be tempted to just reach for an over-the-counter pain medication when a headache hits, learning to manage your stress could prevent that throbbing altogether! For chronic headache sufferers, research shows that combining medication and stress management techniques works better than either alone. (And really, do you enjoy being stressed?)

The good news is that there’s a stress-busting technique to fit any schedule, lifestyle or personal preference. From deep breathing, yoga and tai chi to meditation, biofeedback and progressive muscle relaxation, the ways to unwind are almost as varied as the things that can get you wound up in the first place.

Plus, by controlling your stress, you’ll not only lessen your pain, you’ll also reduce its multiple negative effects on your body — from increasing blood pressure to worsening insulin resistance. That alone should help motivate you to stomp out excess stress.

Here are some proven ways to reduce your headache pain and ease your stress overall.

QUIZ: Are You Feeling Stressed?

Try This

When a headache strikes, imagine a soothing environment — an ocean shore or a tranquil waterfall. Focus on the sound of the waves rolling in and the wind gently blowing through the trees. By concentrating on the details, your mind becomes absorbed in the imagery, which lessens the pain of your headache.

Track It Down
Keep a headache diary to identify the sources of your tension-type headaches. When a headache sets in, record the date and time. Note how long you slept the night before, what you were doing just before the headache, any unusual or added stress in your life, how long it lasts and what you do to stop the pain. Download a premade form for free at the National Headache Foundation’s website.

In addition to helping you spot patterns and triggers on your own, if your headaches become severe and frequent enough (say, more than 15 a month) to seek medical attention, this record will provide your doctor with many clues to what’s underlying your condition.

Get Hooked Up
If you suffer from chronic headaches, speak to your doctor about biofeedback therapy, Dr. Kunkel recommends. During biofeedback, a series of sensors are connected to your body; these detect changes in muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature and other markers of stress.

Working with a trained therapist, you learn to recognize the physical signs of your stress, identify what’s causing that reaction and how to reduce the tension through effective physical skills. After several sessions, you’re able to use those lessons by applying them to situations in your daily life without the aid of a biofeedback machine. 

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