How Are Headaches and Stress Connected?

Caucasian woman rubbing her forehead
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If stressful events seem to give you a headache, you're not alone. Many people suffer from headaches that appear to be triggered or exacerbated by stress. But is there a real link? and if so, what is it? Here's what you need to know.

Are Headaches Caused by Stress?

Many people may wonder if headaches are a direct result of stress. The answer is yes, no, and maybe. Stress can cause many headaches and they can exacerbate others. However, knowing the type of headache you are dealing with can help you to know if stress is a trigger, a contributor, or simply a by-product of the type of headache you are experiencing, so you know the best ways to focus on pain relief and prevention.

While some headaches are blamed entirely on stress, there can be other factors at play as well; likewise, some headaches can be blamed on a predisposition to headaches when stress can be a primary trigger. In all cases, it helps to understand more about the nature of the headaches you are experiencing and their relationship to stress.

There are three different types of headaches, two of which are not caused primarily by stress, and one that may be:

  • Migraine Headaches: Headaches associated with migraines can be severe and even debilitating, and can last from four to 72 hours. These headaches are usually on one side of the head (unilateral) and worsen with daily activities like walking around. There can be nausea or sensitivity to light and sound involved, and sometimes an aura. They are not thought to be directly caused by stress—sort of. While the National Headache Foundation (NHF) states that stress is not a migraine trigger, headache expert Teri Robert clarifies by saying, “Stress alone doesn't trigger migraines but it does make us more susceptible to our triggers.” So, in a way, stress increases migraines but isn’t mentioned as a direct cause.
  • Secondary Headaches: This is the umbrella under which fall all headaches are caused by more serious conditions such as brain tumors and strokes. They are also not directly caused by stress. Although, in the same way, that stress makes us more susceptible to illness, and those illnesses can cause headaches, stress is indirectly related to secondary headaches.
  • Tension Headaches: These headaches, also called “stress headaches,” are experienced periodically by more than one-third of adults. They involve both sides of the head and generally feel like a tightness in the forehead or back of the neck. They’re not generally debilitating; people with tension headaches can normally go about their regular activities. Those who experience them usually don’t have them more than once or twice a month, to varying degrees. And, as the name suggests, they are thought to be directly caused by stress.

Managing and Preventing Headaches

Because the majority of headaches experienced by adults are tension headaches, and these headaches are caused (at least in part) by stress, a great proportion of these headaches can be avoided or at least minimized with effective stress management techniques. Additionally, because stress can make migraine sufferers more susceptible to their migraine triggers, stress relief techniques can help avoid many of these severe headaches as well. And, finally, because stress management techniques can strengthen the immune system (or keep it from being weakened by stress), those who practice regular stress management techniques can avoid at least some potential secondary headaches by avoiding the health conditions that cause them.

When to See a Doctor

Aside from the use of stress management techniques, many people find that over-the-counter stress relievers are also very helpful. However, particularly with migraines, heavier medications may prove to be more useful. And because some headaches can be associated with more serious health conditions, it’s important to see a doctor if you have severe headaches or if you just suspect that something may be significantly wrong.

Either way, stress management can be helpful, but if you're concerned about your headaches and they interfere with your daily activities or you seem to need more help than stress management alone, it's always a good idea to run things by your doctor to be sure there are no serious issues at play, or to find the help you need to be more comfortable in your daily life.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. When Headaches are More than a Pain. Harvard Medical School. March 2019.

  2. Tension Type Headaches. Cleveland Clinic. July 2014.

  3. Migraine. US National Library of Medicine. September 2019.

  4. Headache: When to worry, what to do. Harvard Medical School. February 2019.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.