Ongoing or sudden stress can trigger a headache, such as a tension headache. Stress is also a trigger for migraine headaches. These two types of headaches feel very different from one another.

A tension-type headache is the most common type of headache. A person may describe the pain as a tight band around the forehead. Alternatively, an individual may experience a steady, dull ache that affects both sides of the head.

A migraine headache produces pain on one side of the head, sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, and in some cases, vomiting.

This article will examine the link between stress and headaches, symptoms, management and prevention, and when to contact a doctor.

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The National Headache Foundation states that stress is the most commonly recognized trigger of a headache, including tension-type headaches and migraine headaches:

  • Tension-type headaches: People also refer to these headaches as stress headaches. The American Migraine Foundation notes that the most commonly reported cause of tension-type headaches is stress.
  • Migraine headaches: The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke notes that stress is a trigger for migraine headaches. They also state that some people develop migraine headaches at predictable times, for example, on a weekend after a stressful week at work.

How does stress cause headaches?

A 2022 research overview notes that tension-type headaches can result from muscle contractions. If a person has issues maintaining their posture, the shoulder muscles try to compensate. This can result in some areas tightening, causing a headache.

Stress can also result in disrupted sleep. Sleep loss may contribute to tension-type headaches by increasing fatigue and putting the sympathetic nervous system on alert.

Headache after stress can also develop due to vascular changes in the brain.

A 2021 study notes that the exact way that stress affects the incidence of migraine is unclear. However, a headache after stress may be due to vascular changes in the brain.

According to the National Headache Foundation, during times of emotional stress, the brain releases certain chemicals that result in vascular changes that can cause a headache.

The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) expands on this. It notes that once the period of tension is over and the levels of stress hormone drop, the brain releases neurotransmitters that send out messages to the blood vessels. This causes them to constrict and then dilate, resulting in a headache.

Tension-type headaches typically produce aching pain on both sides of the head, although the face or neck may also hurt.

Some people describe the pain as a squeezing feeling, as if something were tightening around their heads. The head or neck might hurt with gentle pressure.

Tension-type headaches usually last between 30 minutes and 7 days.

Migraine headaches can include systemic symptoms that develop gradually or quickly. Common symptoms include:

  • light, sound, or smell sensitivity
  • dizziness
  • food cravings
  • chills
  • mood changes
  • yawning, fatigue, or difficulty sleeping
  • nausea or vomiting
  • moderate or severe headache

An entire migraine attack can last a few hours to several days.

To treat infrequent tension-type headaches, a person can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, or acetaminophen.

However, overuse of these medications, particularly those containing caffeine, can cause more headaches. A person should ensure that they follow the instructions on the leaflet.

Behavioral changes, such as relaxation, breathing, or stress management techniques, have proven effective for chronic tension-type headaches.

Treatment for migraine includes medications. These can include:

  • enenmab (Aimovig)
  • galcanezumab-gnlm (Emgality)
  • lasmiditan (Reyvow)
  • ubrogepant (Ubrelvy)
  • triptan drugs
  • ergot derivative drugs
  • nausea relief medication

Additionally, other OTC medications, such as acetaminophen with caffeine or NSAIDs, help some people relieve migraine headaches.

A person can also make changes to their lifestyle, such as:

  • maintaining sufficient sleep hygiene
  • taking part in regular exercise
  • maintaining a nutritious diet

Learn more about 15 home remedies for migraine relief and prevention.

To prevent stress-induced headaches, a person can aim to manage their stress levels.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness suggests the following methods to help manage stress:

  • Understanding a person’s needs: A individual can aim to identify their triggers and manage them.
  • Managing time: A person can prioritize and manage their time to minimize feeling overwhelmed by tasks.
  • Practicing relaxation techniques: Meditation and deep breathing can help lower stress levels.
  • Exercising: Taking part in exercise can help produce stress-relieving hormones.
  • Eating well: Eating a nutritious diet can help stabilize a person’s mood. Avoiding alcohol and caffeine can also help reduce stress levels.

If people are having difficulty managing their stress levels, they can speak with a doctor. They can help a person find ways to manage stress or refer them to a mental health specialist.

An individual should also contact a doctor if they experience:

  • frequent headaches
  • headaches that interfere with their ability to function
  • a change in an existing pattern of headaches

People can experience headaches due to stress, which can be a trigger for migraine headaches or tension-type headaches.

Tension-type headaches usually respond to over-the-counter medications and rest. Likewise, migraine headaches may respond to over-the-counter medications or may require prescription medication and rest.

Learning relaxation techniques, reducing stress, and identifying and avoiding triggers can help prevent stress headaches.

A person should contact a doctor if they are finding it difficult to manage their stress levels or are experiencing frequent headaches.