• Dr. Donald Littlewood

How stress can cause headaches (& three coping strategies)


Pandemic stress has changed a bit over the past three months. At least it has for me.


In the beginning, we were all worried about our lives, our jobs, our businesses, our kids. We were worried if we were allowed to walk our dogs & whether going to the grocery store more than once a week was okay.


Now things are starting to open up. In most of the country, going to your chiropractor & hairdresser is something you can do. Patios are opening and the economy is starting to come back to life.


But not without COVID19.


And the reopening comes with its own stressors. Making sure you’re still staying 2m away from people, ensuring you’re following the protocols in different establishments, and the stress of wondering what a second wave may or may not look like.


If you are stressed about work or finances, this can add a whole new layer of complications onto things and… BOOM, you’ve got a headache.


My name is Dr. Donald Littlewood and I am a chiropractor in downtown Toronto. I treat the headaches, neck pain & posture complaints of the LGBTQ+ community. Today I want to talk to you about how stress can play a role in our headaches and what you can do about it.


How does stress cause headaches

When we get stressed our body immediately goes into a fight, flight or freeze (FFF) response. Anthropologically, this reaction was around so we could either fight for our lives or run like the wind to get out of a situation. Now our bodies react in the same way, but we don’t react in the same way.


When you are stressed, your body sends extra blood to the organs that need it the most for fight or flight: our brain & your muscles. In order to make this happen, your blood vessels have to widen & contract to allow for the increase and subsequent decrease in blood flow. This dramatic change in blood flow is one of the many causes of a migraine.


A second type of headache can also be caused with stress and that is a tension type headache. Stress is actually the most common trigger of tension headaches.


Research shows that it is not major life events (such as death of a loved one or a job loss) that cause tension type headaches, it is the smaller, everyday stressors that do this. A study done by Holm et al. shows that those who experience tension headaches actually only experienced one more stressful event than those that didn’t get headaches.


This same study also showed that those who experience recurrent tension headaches perceive more things to be stressful than those who don’t experience tension headaches. They also found that events that were categorized by the researchers as ambiguous were in fact undesirable events for the headache group, but considered desirable for the control (or non-headache) group.


This study also (they did a lot with this one) looked at coping strategies when it comes to dealing with life’s everyday stressors. They found those with headaches used criticism & problem avoidance whereas those who didn’t experience headaches looked to their social circles for support.


Holm et al. concluded that those with tension type headaches (especially recurrent) have poorer coping strategies than those who don’t have headaches.


This leads me to the actionable portion of this blog post: coping strategies


Three tension headache coping strategies

[Strategy 01] Social contact

Holm et al. used social contact as their control coping strategy. It was the only one they used (which is a study limitation for sure), but it is one that is super important, especially as we navigate a world with a pandemic.


If you are under a lot of stress at work (you’ve got a big deadline coming up), it’s easy to bury your head in the sand and just get it done. On one hand this is good because you are tackling the stressor head on and getting it out of the way ASAP. But this isn’t good for your mental or physical wellbeing.


With the COVID19 pandemic still here, physical social contact is something that has been missing from a lot of our lives & it has shown us that social contact is more important than ever. So, take some time to invite a friend to the park and just chat. Chat about anything and everything: what makes you happy, what makes you sad, any excess stress you are going through. Literally talk it out.


Doctor’s orders.


[Strategy 02] Abdominal breathing

I talk about abdominal breathing a lot when it comes to stress & stress reduction. And I generally get an eye roll when I do. But hear me out; there is scientific reasoning as to why this works.


Like I said before, when we get stressed, our body initiates the FFF response that is regulated by our sympathetic nervous system. When our SNS kicks into high gear, our blood vessels to the brain & muscles open and close rapidly which is what is thought to be a cause of migraines & tension type headaches.


When we start practicing abdominal breathing, the sympathetic nervous system shuts down and our parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. The PNS is responsible for the rest & digest response. Abdominal breathing literally reverses the FFF response and brings your body out of that heightened state.


So how do we practice abdominal breathing? Well there are several ways, but let me give you one I like to call Dragon’s Breath.


Make a “hang ten” sign with your hand and bring it up to your nose. Using your thumb, plug your right nostril and take a deep breath in, expanding through your belly. Then you are going to plug both nostrils & hold your breath for 5s. Unplug the left nostril and exhale. Repeat this process a couple of times, breathing in & out through opposite nostrils.


[Strategy 03] Physical activity

In the past, I’ve often been met with a second eye roll when I suggest physical activity as a great way to relieve stress. That being said, I think COVID19 has made this a little bit easier for many of us to grasp.


Something as little as a 30 minute walk, an online yoga class or an at-home bodyweight workout has been shown over and over again to be incredibly beneficial for stress levels, our physical health and (maybe most importantly) our mental health.


If you are looking for more ways to reduce your stress, I have created a really great resource for you on more strategies to bust through stress. You can head on over to www.drdonaldlittlewood.com/stress to get your copy now!


TL;DR

Long story short, stress has been shown to be a causative factor in both migraines & tension type headaches. A key way to self-manage your headaches is to decrease the amount of stress you are under. Some strategies for you:

  1. Social contact - call a friend, go to a park (better yet on a walk) and just chat about what is bothering you. It will make a difference

  2. Abdominal breathing - reverse the fight, flight or freeze response with two dedicated minutes of breathing

  3. Physical activity - do an online yoga class, a bodyweight workout, or a double whammy and get on a walk with a friend.


Looking for more strategies? Head on over to www.drdonaldlittlewood.com/stress.


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