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Headaches

Why Recognizing Anxiety Could be the Key to Getting Rid of Your Chronic Headaches

Author| Ben Bobrow, MD

Research has suggested there's a strong link between anxiety disorders, depression and chronic headaches.

As many as 40% of patients with chronic headaches also experience depression.

This is likely why non-drug headache treatments like relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioral therapy can be so effective in decreasing headache frequency and severity, and improving overall quality of life.1

Headaches can be triggered or worsened by stress, anxiety, depression and other psychological factors. Cognitive behavioral therapy addresses the stress, anger and frustration that frequently accompany chronic headache pain.2,3

What causes chronic headaches?

Chronic headaches are a very individual ailment. Most of the time they're not life threatening, but they can really impact your quality of life.

Chronic headaches can be an extremely common symptom, and there are many different categories of headaches based on the type, location, frequency of pain, associated symptoms and the suspected cause of the headaches. There are many different types of medications available to treat headaches, with varying effectiveness.

Taking too much medication can actually cause headaches in some people.

As with the other chronic pain syndromes, many people who suffer from chronic headaches are having real pain and real symptoms like nausea, vomiting or visual problems. But despite extensive testing and imaging studies like CT scans and MRIs, many times the clear source of the pain cannot be determined.

Effective non-drug treatments for chronic headaches

There are several types of behavioral therapies that can help treat headaches:

  • Psychotherapy - Involves meeting with a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker to discuss treatment successes or failures, personal relationships and emotional reactions to having chronic headaches.
  • Group therapy - Compares your experiences with headaches to others’ experiences, helping you to overcome the inclination to withdraw in to your pain and support others’ efforts in managing their pain. Group therapy teaches you ways to avoid negative thinking and how to deal with pain flares positively.3
  • Relaxation techniques - Meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, self-hypnosis and biofeedback can all relieve muscle tension, and can be especially helpful for people with chronic tension-type headaches.

References

  1. Devineni T, Blanchard EB. A randomized controlled trial of an internet-based treatment for chronic headache. Behav Res Ther. 2005; 43(3):277–292.
  2. Nash JM, Park ER, Walker BB, Gordon N, Nicholson RA. Cognitive-behavioral group treatment for disabling headache. Pain Med. 2004; 5(2):178–186.
  3. Thorn BE, Pence LB, Ward LC, et al. A randomized clinical trial of targeted cognitive behavioral treatment to reduce catastrophizing in chronic headache sufferers. J Pain. 2007; 8(12):938–949.