Stress, Anxiety and Headaches

Is anxiety making your headache worse?

Are we underestimating the role of stress in New Daily Persistent Headache?

One of the first things my doctor asked before giving me a diagnosis was “Were you under a lot of stress before the onset?” I answered “I don’t think so.”

To me, my stress level was always about the same. High. But that’s normal, right?
Recently, I looked more carefully at my answer, which was difficult because I had to look back more than 5 years for the answer. And these days, my memory is a little foggy. Which I blame on the headaches and not my age, thank you very much.

I began thinking about this a couple of weeks ago, after a visit to my new eye doctor. I quickly explained to her what had happened last time I went for an eye check up.

I had a panic attack, out of no where. I passed out cold in the chair while the doctor was looking at my eyes. It was a scene. I was embarrassed.  It was more normal (maybe) when I passed out in the dentist chair. It didn’t happen often, but it was always sudden and unexpected.

My eye doctor, who is a 38 year-old mom of three girls (just like me) shut the door and began telling me her story. She suffered from anxiety and headaches as well. She didn’t have NDPH, but she did have very frequent migraines. Life was overwhelming. Recently, she started taking a medication that is intended to lower blood pressure, but has been found to alleviate anxiety.

And her headaches are gone.

She suggested I talk to my doctor. The medication is Atenolol and a quick search will show that it is used successfully by many to treat anxiety, without the funky side effects or mood altering fogginess that comes along with meds like Paxil or Prozac. It doesn’t cross the brain barrier so it doesn’t really treat depression or anxiety in the typical way.

It treats your body and alleviates the pain, achiness, that feeling in your gut like someone just scared the life out of you. It treats the stress that your body feels. It lets your body relax, if not your mind.

I haven’t tried it yet, though I plan to. It makes sense on some levels for me to give this a try.

And looking back, I remember the day my headache started. It was that different from any other day, but perhaps it was the final straw that pushed my stress level over the edge.  An old friend had called to wish me a belated Happy Birthday. It was a friend who always gave me grief about one thing or another, always on my case for some reason.  Then, I received a call informing me that my grandmother, who was recently admitted into a nursing home, was being left there alone for the Easter Holiday and I was furious. I decided that my husband and my girls (2 at the time) would drive four hours to spend Easter with her.

So I didn’t consider either of these things massive stress.  BIG Stress is losing a loved one, changing jobs, moving or a sudden illness, like NDPH. What I remember most is anger over both situations. And I can’t say that I am talented when it comes to handling my anger, ever. I keep it in. I smile and deal. I rarely tell people how much they irritate or hurt me.  I never have.

Is peace what we need?

Could anger have brought on such pain?  Pain that still doesn’t want to go away? I have no idea. I’m reaching for any possible solution I guess. I think that our response to stress is not fully understood. I would love to hear your thoughts.

I’m curious, as always how stress and anxiety affects your head pain.  I’m I alone in this? I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks from time to time before having NDPH, but it wasn’t a problem at the time the pain began.

What was your experience? Does stress NOW make your pain levels rise?

Please share in the comments.


Stress, Anxiety and Headaches — 4 Comments

  1. Interesting association between anxiety & headaches. My husband was not prone to panic attacks before NDPH, but has had a couple over the last few months. In fact, his most recent ‘flare’ came 1.5 weeks into his return to work & just after I lost my job. I’m pretty sure that his are exacerbated by stress/anxiety.

    I’ll definitely mention the anxiety med to him & his primary doc. Thanks for posting!

    • Hi Tammy, I’m wondering – did your husband try this medication and if so,did it help with the headaches at all?

  2. I have been dealing with NDPH for 2 years and I feel like I can’t take it anymore. I met someone on a plane who saw I was in terrible pain and asked if I had headaches. I said yes. Then he asked if I had anxiety or anger problems. I heasitated to answer this complete stranger but I admitted to both. He told me about a doctor in New York that had cured him of similar headaches and had linked the head aches to repressed anger or anxiety. It’s called TMS Tension Mitosis Syndrom. His name is Dr. Sarno. I read one of his books and it really hit home and made sense. That was a year ago and although I admitt I still beleive I have TMS I haven’t gtten any better headache wise. Granted I am not seeing a psychologist or anyone for “emotional” help (which i think would really help wwith the TMS)

    Either way Dr Sarno’s book is worth a read

    • Hi Avery – thanks for the suggestion. I will definitely take a look at the book. I think there is still so much that isn’t understood about how our emotions impact our health. Anything is worth a shot to get rid of the pain!
      You might be interested in trying EMT – Emotional Freedom Technique. There are videos on Youtube that can show you how to treat yourself and it is supposed to be very effective at “releasing” anger and trauma from your system with very little pain (and without the long drawn out talk therapy). It sounds a little out there – I know – but I did use it once and found it helpful.

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