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Anxiety headaches, migraines, head tension symptoms

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019

Headaches are a common sign of anxiety

Anxiety headache description:

You have headaches or frequent headaches that feel like a tension, pressure, tight band around your head, shooting pain(s) in your head and/or face, and/or stabbing pain in the head. It also may feel like your head is 'frozen,' 'thick,' 'numb,' and/or many other odd aches, pains, feelings, and sensations.

Some people describe anxiety headaches as feeling like they have an odd pressure in their head or that their head feels like it is about to explode.

Anxiety headaches and migraines may occur as a response to feeling anxious or stressed, or may occur for no apparent reason.

Anxiety headaches can be mildly noticeable, moderately bothersome, or greatly problematic. They can occur rarely, frequently, or persistently, and may change from day to day and even moment to moment.

Anxiety headaches are also associated with migraine headaches.

All combinations and variations of the above are common.

What causes anxiety headaches?

There are four types of headache:  vascular, muscle contraction (tension), traction, and inflammatory. 

Behaving in an anxious manner activates the body’s stress response. The stress response stresses the body. Muscle contraction headaches are commonly caused by stress, including the stress caused by being overly anxious.

Stress causes muscles to contract, and therefore, tighten. This can include the many muscle groups in the head, face, neck, and shoulders. Chronic stress can cause persistent muscle tension, and even muscle spasms (involuntary sudden muscle contractions).

When muscles remain tense, they can become painful, which is a common reason for stress-related headaches, head “pressures,” and feeling like you have a “tight band around your head.”

Tight muscles can also spasm, which is a common cause of stabbing and shooting pains in the head and face.

A common type of vascular headache is a migraine. While there are many causes for migraine headaches, stress, including the stress caused by being anxious, can also cause them.

Medical Advisory
Because there are many medical conditions that can cause anxiety and anxiety-like sensations and symptoms, including this one, we recommend that all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms be discussed with your doctor. If your doctor concludes that your sensations and symptoms are solely stress related (including anxiety-caused stress), you can be confident that there isn't another medical reason for them. Generally, most doctors can easily tell the difference between stress- and anxiety-caused sensations and symptoms from those caused by other medical conditions.

If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, however, you may want to seek a second and even third opinion. But if all three opinions concur, you can be assured that stress (including the stress that being overly anxious can cause) is the cause of your sensations and symptom, including this one, and not some other medical or biological problem.

How to get rid of anxiety caused headaches?

Because anxiety headaches are caused by the stress of behaving in an overly apprehensive manner, you can eliminate them by changing your behavior to a less anxious approach and reducing your body’s stress overall. As your body’s stress diminishes, so should your anxiety headaches. Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When your headaches are caused by persistently elevated stress, it may take a lot more time for your body to calm down and to the point where your headaches are eliminated.

Nevertheless, when your body’s stress has been sufficiently reduced, anxiety headaches, including anxiety-caused migraine headaches, should completely disappear.

You can speed up recovery time by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about your headaches.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety headaches (and all of the other symptoms of anxiety), why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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Additional Resources:

Return to our main anxiety symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including anxiety headaches.