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Can Anxiety Cause Headaches?


One of the more common physical symptoms of anxiety are headaches. The specific type of headaches differ from person to person, some have migraines, some tension headaches, some are more light sensitivity-based. The degree of the headaches can be fairly debilitating, causing further worry and stress to the individual. If your headaches are long lasting and causing you stress, please contact your doctor.


Although stress-based headaches can occur on their own, they’re more commonly accompanied by other symptoms. These symptoms are often triggered by a release of the stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline in the caveman part of our brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. This puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.


Why Does Anxiety Cause Headaches?

There’s a few reasons why anxiety might cause headaches, the first of which being tension in your jaw or facial muscles. This is caused by the straining of muscles once our fight, flight or freeze response is activated. We tense our muscles preparing to run or strike out and the longer we hold this tension, the more stress we’re putting on those muscles, and doing so in our neck, temples and face can all come together to feel like tension headaches.


In terms of light sensitivity headaches, this can also stem from our fight, flight or freeze response. When these reactions occur our brain becomes hyper focused and hypersensitive to the situation around us, designed to make us more reactive to any perceived threats around us. As such, any changes to light or sound can cause overstimulation and headaches. 


Finally, migraine headaches are considered one of the most debilitating types of headaches. When these occur, they can affect our vision, concentration and cause worries about potentially worse health conditions. As such, this becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of worrying more and the stress building to maintain these migraines. 


How Do I Stop This Symptom?

As with all headaches, anxiety-driven or otherwise, the key is pain management. Whether that’s taking time in a dark room, over the counter painkillers or massaging your temples, it’s what works for you. It might be worth considering your hydration levels as this can also have an impact on headaches. 


Of course, this helps us to stop the headaches in action, but in order to prevent the symptoms occurring, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.