Stress headaches: what causes tension headaches?
in Stress

Stress headaches: what causes tension headaches?

Headaches caused by stress: the most common form of headaches are tension headaches, so headaches caused by tension or stress. A whopping sixty percent of all people suffer from these to some extent.

Tension headaches can put quite a strain on your daily life. It greatly impacts your job, your study, your family life or social activities. Sick leave due to headaches is therefore quite high.

What are headaches?

Tension headaches are characterised by a nagging, dull pain that often starts on the sides of your head. These headaches are often accompanied by stiff neck or back muscles. Complaints of a major headache can be similar to those of a migraine: you feel nauseous, are hypersensitive to light and sounds and you feel a throbbing pain in your head. Physical effort has no influence on the complaints.

Mild tension headaches occur two days a month or no more than twelve days a year. One suffers from episodic tension headaches if the headaches last no longer than fifteen days a month for at least three months. If the headaches last at least three months in a row and are present more than fifteen times a month, one suffers from chronic tension headaches.

Causes of headaches

Although many things can cause tension headaches, stress often is the main culprit. Other triggers for this type of headache are:

  • (over)tiredness
  • Too intense physical exercise or exercising too long
  • Too high muscle tension/incorrect posture
  • Prolonged tension on the eyes (gazing)
  • Hormonal fluctuations

Anaemia, dental problems or allergies could also bring about tension headaches.

Headaches caused by stress

In order to figure out why stress is causing you to suffer from headaches, it’s wise to first see what happens whenever you experience stress.

Let’s take the age-old example of the tiger and the forest.

You’re in the forest and a tiger jumps from the bushes. What do you do? Of course you’d want to run away as fast as you can! Your body will take control during this stressful situation by producing hormones. First, adrenalin will be produced. Adrenalin allows you to respond in a split second: it primes your muscles, dilates your pupils, your blood will flow faster: you’re ready to fight or flee.

If more tigers jump come your way, but you know they won’t eat you, it doesn’t mean you’ll like it one bit. You’ll stay alert in such situations. In order to deal with this, your body produces cortisol. A hormone that helps you to keep feeling good, despite the pressure you constantly feel. This hormone also keeps your muscles primed, just in case you need to fight or flee.

Also read: Cortisol: what is it? And what does it do?

headaches stress and burnout

Muscle tension and headaches

So, similar to training your muscles with weights, the efforts made during a stressful situation burden your muscles. A short, stressful period is followed by a period of recovery that ensures you won’t be affected later.

If you however experience longer periods of stress, your muscles will start to protest and the tension inside your muscles will increase. Suddenly, getting out of your chair becomes difficult, or you’ll start feeling it your legs after running up the stairs.

The same applies to the muscles in your back and neck. Whenever you experience headaches you probably also have painful muscles in the red areas of the following figure:

Relaxing these cramped muscles isn’t easy, so you can’t quickly alleviate your headache.

Headache exercises in case of elevated muscle tension

When tension headaches are caused by elevated muscle tension, the culprits are often the muscles of our neck and shoulders. We unconsciously shrug our shoulders whenever we experience stress. A tense neck is also very common, especially when sitting in front of a screen in the same position for a longer duration. Over time, your entire posture could change and your complaints could spread to your back and chest.

In our extensive article on relaxation exercises we’ve described various exercises that relax you. They don’t just focus on your shoulders and neck, but place your entire body in a state of relaxation. You can easily perform these exercises by following the video. These exercises generally won’t take long and can be done at any time and in any place in order to reset your mind. You can achieve amazing results be doing a single short exercise three times a day!

Posture and stress

Many people shrug their shoulders when stressed. That’s not that strange: a stressful situation requires a fight or flight response. Just stand in a ‘boxing position’ with your fist clenched in front of you. Do you also lift your shoulders and hide your head behind your fists (and between your shoulders?)

So the muscles pull together in such a way the head is protected (in case of the tiger: it’s better to lose an arm than your head). The attachments run from the forehead to the neck, which is why headaches often arise in this area.

If you’re nervous or tense, you could give your self-confidence a boost by widening your shoulders and chest and straightening your back. By this somewhat dominant posture you occupy more space, which feeds your self-confidence. With a wide, straight back, the self-confidence you exude will be noticed by others.

headaches stress and burnout

Causes of headaches in the back of your head…

Headaches in the back of your head are very annoying but luckily harmless. These are caused by increased tension in the neck, shoulders and face because of tensions and stress. If you’re in front of a computer screen a lot, the tension on your eye muscles can increase and lead to this type of headache. An incorrect posture or fatigue can cause this same nagging headache.

Exertion headaches have the same complaints as muscle tension headaches. This type of headache can arise after intense efforts or prolonged exercise such as running, swimming or playing tennis.

Stabbing or pressing pain in the back of your head that keeps returning in bursts could indicate irritation of the nerve of the back of your head. This nerve runs from the neck muscles to the back of your skull.

… and headaches in your forehead…

There are clear differences between headaches in the back of your head and in your forehead. Both the intensity of the pain and the causes differ. Headache in the forehead can last longer. A tight band around your head or just just pain in the forehead often indicate tension and stress. We unconsciously flex our muscles and thereby put the muscles of our neck and head under tension. If you’re stressed, you should regularly be aware of the muscles you’re feeling. Calmly inhale through your belly and try to relax the muscles.

Forehead pain could also indicate a lack of fluids. Fluids are required for our organs to properly function. If you’re working in a cooler area, you’ll need less of it, because you vaporise less moisture than someone who sweats a lot because of intensive labour or working in a warm environment. If your moisture balance is too low, your kidneys will extract moisture from the bloodstream.

If this is the case, you’ll notice your urine will be a darker colour. The blood vessels in our brain will expand in order to absorb the minimal moisture, which leads to headaches. You can maintain a proper moisture balance by drinking at least 1.5 to 2 litres of water a day.

Forehead pains could also be caused by other issues. Consult a doctor if you’re unsure or if the headaches are too common.

… and headaches behind your eyes

If you experience headaches behind your eyes, you could suffer from increased tension on your eye muscles. You might have the flu or sinusitis. Migraines and muscle tension headaches are also common.

We’ve discussed muscle tension headaches before. But did you know this type of headache can also be caused by certain foods? For instance through excessive sugar intake, caffeine, peanuts, salt or alcohol.

headaches stress and burnout

Headaches and nausea?

We’ve indicated before that headaches can be caused by stress or tension. Another symptom of stress and even a burnout is nausea. A Norwegian study found that 41% of the people with an anxiety disorder are nauseous on a regular basis. Twenty-four percent of people suffering from depression experienced nausea.

Nausea mainly occurs during tense, anxious or stressful situations. Complaints related to stress don’t easily disappear, which means the nausea could occur for a longer period of time. When we’re nauseous we eat less and thus take in fewer essential nutrients and eventually lose weight. In our article on nausea and stress we provide you with information and tips on how to deal with nausea.

If you suffer from headaches combined with nausea, you perhaps have a migraine. One of the characteristics of a migraine is blurred vision or seeing flashing images and stars. Mononucleosis or Lyme disease also cause headaches and nausea.

Headaches and dizziness?

Dizziness is one of the many symptoms of stress and burnouts, and is often paired with headaches. If you experience dizziness followed by intense headaches, you could be suffering from a migraine. Stress is an important trigger for migraine attacks. Some migraines lead to vertigo but no headaches.

Also read: Dizziness because of stress or a burnout 

Headaches and tired?

We actually speak of being tired and having a headache instead of the other way around. That’s because fatigue causes a variety of complaints, including headaches. If you’re fatigued you could go to bed and have a great night’s sleep, but still wake up exhausted. This occurs more in women than in men.

Similar to the combination of headaches and nausea, headaches combined with fatigue ring an alarm bell indicating your level of stress is too high. Sustained anxiety, depression and stress lead to complaints of fatigue, which cause these headaches.

Identify your type of headache with the headache test

As you read above, different types of headaches exist, each with its own characteristics. Are you wondering whether you actually suffer from tension headaches? Or do you suspect it could also be migraines? The Dutch College of General Practitioners developed a self-check on its website: headache test

Although headaches are generally harmless, it’s sometimes wise to visit your doctor in order to find the causes of your headaches.

Why a headache diary?

By recording on a daily basis whether you suffer from headaches or not and the intensity of these headaches, your doctor can distinguish between the different types of headaches more easily. For instance, migraines are characterised by other symptoms than tension headaches.

Such a headache diary is also often used to verify the effectiveness of the medicine prescribed to you.

Here you can find a ready-made headache diary of the NHG (Dutch College of General Practitioners): headache diary

Carefully fill in this diary for some weeks. Write down the medicine you’ve taken and any important events. Your lifestyle can also influence your headaches. By providing your doctor with the completed diary, he or she can determine the correct treatment or approach more easily.

Remedy against headaches caused by stress

Taking some paracetamol is usually a temporary solution. A great massage to relax the muscles is often beneficial, but only tackles the symptoms.

It’s much better to find out the cause of the stress you experience. This means uncovering the sources of your stress and finding a sustainable way to get rid of tension headaches. In addition, a healthy attitude towards life and exercising play a positive role in the battle against stress.

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Training and coaching

Milltain provides training and coaching for private individuals and organisations. Our team consists of 35 coaches and trainers who have now helped thousands of people struggling with stress and burnouts.

Milltain for private individuals:

Are you stuck in life because of stress or a burnout? We developed an effective online programme that is fully focused on the complete recovery from a burnout. More than 2000 people have successfully completed this training!

Movement and nature play prominent roles in this training. Recovery is a process that contains peaks and troughs, and that’s something we know all about. Our highly experienced coaches provide you with active support.

Learn more: Stress and burnout coaching

Milltain for organisations:

With the help of a team of experienced trainers, Milltain supports organisations in the prevention of stress and the (re) finding of work happiness in the workplace. A single burnout can easily cost an organisation € 70,000 (or more!)

In addition to financial suffering, the human suffering is great. Not only for the employee but also for close colleagues who have to deal with the blows. Before long, you find yourself in a negative vicious circle.

Get long-term absence and stress among employees under control with the help of our highly effective team training via Zoom or a similar tool.

This training has proven to be an international success for both managers (leadership skills) and employees (dealing with stress).

Learn more: Online team training

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About the author
My name is Ruud Meulenberg. Owner and founder of Milltain and Meulenberg Training & Coaching.
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