Tension Headaches

Stress and Headaches

Stress is cumulative and can be a trigger. There are physical (structural stresses include bones, muscles, joints, bite, spine, and habits), emotional (life stresses), and biochemical stresses. When the total of all of these stresses overloads adaptive capacity, patients experience painful emotional responses.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the relationship between stress and headaches. You have probably experience headaches yourself during periods of stress. Tension headaches, sometimes referred to as stress headaches; present a strong correlation with stress.


The human body desires to reside in a state of equilibrium; this is where it is most effective and efficient. When stress of any sort is introduced, the autonomic nervous system takes control and triggers changes in your breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and a number of other systems.

Dr. Hans Selye wrote the book The Stress of Life and originated the concept of the General Adaptation Syndrome a concept that is as important today as ever.

Some of the symptoms of stress include:

  • Headache
  • Sleep disorders
  • Muscle tension
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety 
  • Eating disorders

All of the other symptoms listed can themselves contribute in some way to making stress headaches more likely.

Stress Factors

Not everybody manages every situation the same way. You might remain calm in certain situations that would rattle your spouse or neighbor. There are some factors common to stress, including:

  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of positive social interaction
  • Ill health
  • Work-related stress
  • Chronic Worrying seems to be a particularly destructive behavior

It is important to identify the things that increase stress in your life and work to minimize those factors as much as possible.

Tension Headaches

The types of headache most associated with stress are tension headaches. Most people suffer from tension headaches at times. There are two broad categories of tension headaches:

  • Episodic – These occur periodically, but not more than 15 times per month.
  • Chronic – Tension headaches that occur more than 15 times per month are classified as chronic headaches.

Headaches that are triggered from another underlying cause are called secondary headaches. Tension headaches caused by stress fall into that category.


Some studies correlate physical stress on the muscles of the head and neck to tension headaches. However, it is also shown that the chemical interactions of the body correlate strongly with headaches. Fluctuations in the following chemicals may be the underlying cause of your tension headache:

  • Endorphins
  • Serotonin
  • Other chemicals

The underlying reasons for the changes in the chemical levels may themselves be subject to outside stresses.

While stress is not a direct cause of other types of headaches like migraines and cluster headaches, it is a factor that may make those headaches come on faster or make them worse.


Over the counter medications like aspirin and ibuprofen may help alleviate tension headaches. Addressing the underlying stress best treats chronic tension headaches. Some of the things you can do to help relieve stress include:

  • Abortive medication
  • Preventative medication
  • Rest
  • Proper diet and exercise
  • Staying hydrated
  • Reducing medications that cause chemical imbalances

Stress is the result of the body's natural response to uncontrollable events. In order to maintain homeostasis, chemicals are released to increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure, and increase your respiratory rate. Overreacting to these minor stress factors often lead to headaches. If you suspect that your headaches are induced by other factors such as stress, consult a iHATEheadaches dentist and get a proper medical diagnosis.