Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
It’s been a long day at work, and you can feel the tension building. It seems like there has been problem after problem and just not enough time to deal with it all. By the time you head home from work, you can feel it starting to come on—a stress headache. If you’re not proactive in handling your levels of stress and anxiety, this can become a common occurrence that has a negative impact on your daily life.
What Is A Stress Or Tension Headache?
A stress headache is often referred to as a tension headache. It can be difficult to diagnose when you’re experiencing one because there are several common different types of headaches that people experience. Some of the most common include:
- Sinus headache
- Caffeine headache
- Hormone headache
- Migraine headache
- Exertion headache
- Tension headache (or stress headache)
It can be tempting to just take some headache medicine when you feel one coming on to stop the symptoms, but most of the time, that’s not going to address the problem's underlying cause.
Instead, it’s truly in your best interest to determine what type of headache you’re having, so you can begin to address the underlying root of it. This helps you to work through feeling better from your current situation and know how to handle it the next time you feel the pain starting to build.
How Do You Know When It's Stress Or Tension Headache?
One of the easiest ways to determine what type of headache you’re experiencing is to think about where the pain and pressure are located.
When you have a sinus headache, the head's pressure will be where your sinus cavities are located. You will usually feel the pain above your eyebrows or around your cheekbones. On the other hand, whereas migraines tend to be focused on one side of the head or the other.
You can also think about any situations leading up to the start of your headache. For example, having too much caffeine or not enough caffeine (if you’re reducing your intake) can cause headaches. Women may also experience headaches at certain times of their menstrual cycle as their hormones fluctuate.
Tension headaches tend to feel like a band around your head that’s squeezing and applying pressure. It can also be described as a dull ache.
These headaches are caused by the tightening of the muscles in your neck and scalp. You may also feel tension, pressure, or tightness in your neck and shoulders.
Tension headaches are generally caused by an increase in stress levels.
Tension Headache Treatment
There are several different types of treatment that you may find helpful for tension headache relief.
The first is what most people are familiar with, taking over-the-counter medication (pain relievers). This can help alleviate the pain you’re experiencing, and depending on what type of medicine you take, it can also help to relax some of your tight muscles. When you have a headache, the best thing to do is address the immediate pain you’re experiencing before trying to determine why it started and how to address it long term.
If you find that you’re experiencing chronic tension headaches, it’s best to talk with a doctor to explore your options. For example, if the simple over-the-counter medication is not providing you relief from your symptoms, they may be able to provide you with a stronger prescription medication that can help. Some medications can help to prevent stress headaches.
You may also find it helpful to keep a journal of when you’re getting headaches. You can note any circumstances or situations that were happening around that time, the foods you were eating, what treatment you used, and if it helped or not.
The more you pay attention to the things that impact your tension levels and headaches, both positively and negatively, the easier it will be to start seeing what your best course of action is to address them.
Alternative & DIY Treatment Options
If you don’t like to take medication for headaches, there are other forms of treatment you can try.
Deep Breathing – If you’re feeling stressed, you may be taking shorter, quick breaths that can have a snowball effect on other physical symptoms of stress. By taking the time to practice deep breathing exercises, you may be able to reverse some of the anxiety you’re feeling and stop the physical symptoms you’re experiencing.
Meditation – Some people find that meditation helps them handle stress and anxiety to avoid the negative symptoms that these issues can cause. You can use a free meditation app to give this a try if you are new to the idea.
Aromatherapy – Certain essential oils are believed to help reduce the pain from tension headaches. Some of these oils include peppermint, rosemary, lavender, chamomile, and eucalyptus. There are right and wrong ways to use essential oils, so make sure you speak with your doctor or primary care provider before trying this option.
Acupuncture – This is another alternative form of treatment that some people have found helpful for treating stress headaches.
Journaling – Some people find journaling to be an effective way to relieve stress in their life. Doing this regularly may help you reduce the level of stress that you feel, which can help eliminate your tension headaches.
Exercise – Physical activity has many positive benefits in your life. Being active regularly may help you to experience fewer tension headaches. You may also find that if you begin to exercise when you already have a headache, it can help reduce your pain.
Hot/Cold – You may find that hot or cold compresses may help with tense muscles. As your muscles relax, you may feel your headache start to diminish as well.
Massage – If your headache is caused by tense muscles, massaging your shoulders, neck, and head can help to relax your muscle and alleviate the tension. This, in turn, can help to reduce or eliminate your tension headache.
What Are Other Symptoms Of Stress To Watch For?
Stress and anxiety can do a lot more than just cause headaches, even though that can feel bad enough on some days. Some of the other symptoms of stress include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Digestive problems
- Depression and anxiety
- Skin conditions
- Chronic pain in different areas of the body
- Inability to concentrate or difficulty remembering things
If you are experiencing stress in your life and negatively impacting your daily life, it’s best to address it. If you continue to ignore it, it can continue to show up in your life through your actions, emotions, and physical body.
You may feel that dealing with the occasional tension headaches isn’t that big of a deal, but if you leave stress in your life, it can continue to grow into a bigger problem with long-term health consequences.
Treatment For Stress
If you’re experiencing frequent or chronic headaches due to stress, it can be a good option to address stress in your life. Take time to inventory your personal situation.
- Are you frequently under stress due to a lack of time and scheduling constraints?
- Do you have a relationship in your life that constantly leaves you feeling stressed?
- Are your finances tight to the point that you feel stressed about them regularly?
- Are you overwhelmed with the workload that you have to carry at your job?
- Does the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home from work start that dull ache in your head daily?
Look at the things you experience in life and see if you can connect to where the underlying stress is coming from. Knowing this answer can help you make positive changes in that specific area.
However, it may just be that you feel stressed, and you can’t really pinpoint why. You may find it helpful to talk with a therapist who can help you work through the situations that you experience regularly. They can ask questions that can help you identify stressors that you may be overlooking. And they can also help you determine what next steps you can take to reduce the stress and anxiety you’re experiencing.
For example, you may need to build better time management skills, communication skills, or healthy ways to relieve stress when you feel the tension building.
If you’re unsure if the problems you’re experiencing in life are caused by stress, you can take this stress quiz to see if you’re at risk for stress-related illness.
Finding out where you stand is important in helping you see what the next best steps are that you should be taking. If you know that stress is likely impacting your quality of life, you can start to address it so you can start living your best life.