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Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
There’s no sugar-coating it: If left untreated, anxiety can have a huge impact on your quality of life. Anxiety affects many people in their daily lives (about 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder) and different people experience different symptoms.
For instance, can anxiety cause headaches? Or is there a connection between anxiety and migraines?
You can probably guess some of the symptoms of anxiety — like feeling worried or anxious. But anxiety symptoms extend far beyond feelings. There are physical symptoms that can present, too.
In fact, some people say one physical symptom that they get is anxiety headaches. But is this a real thing? Let’s find out — but first, gain a better understanding of anxiety disorders.
There are a few different types of anxiety disorders — all of which have different symptoms (though many have overlapping symptoms).
One of the most common anxiety disorders is called generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). If you have a hard time managing your anxiety more often than not over the course of six months, a healthcare professional may diagnose you with GAD.
Some symptoms of GAD include irritability, rapid heart rate, fatigue, nervousness, sleep trouble, stomach issues and more.
Here are four other types of anxiety disorders:
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):OCD revolves around having recurrent thoughts and compulsive behaviors that may feel obsessive (like having to wash your hands over and over or checking that the door is locked multiple times before going to bed).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Whether it’s being assaulted or serving in the military, people who survive trauma may develop PTSD symptoms. The result of this could include things like persistently feeling like you’re reliving the trauma, feeling numb or having emotional outbursts.
The quick answer is that anxiety can indeed cause headaches. In fact, a review of clinical findings discovered a comorbidity between psychiatric disorders and migraines.
Comor-what? Comorbidity is a medical term for when you suffer from two different conditions at once — like when people with anxiety disorders also experience migraines.
Migraines are considered a neurological disease that can cause severe headaches. People who suffer from them can be triggered by physical activity and sound or may have a sensitivity to light.
NDPH is a condition that involves a sudden onset headache that continues without stopping for 24 hours. It’s a rare condition, but can be quite difficult to deal with.
Another anxiety disorder often associated with getting migraines is panic disorder. And there’s even research that shows that people with chronic migraines are more likely to experience PTSD.
Finally, tension headaches can also be caused by stress and anxiety. Tension headaches are mostly felt in the neck and scalp area — the muscles there will feel tight.
If you have an anxiety disorder and you get migraines or intense headaches, your healthcare provider will likely suggest trying to get to the root of your anxiety disorder above all.
If there’s a chance that your headaches or migraines are related to your anxiety, it makes sense that addressing the causes of that anxiety could serve your best interests.
To do this, they may suggest things like depression or anxiety medication, therapy or even lifestyle changes like getting proper rest, exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet — most likely, they’ll suggest some kind of combination of the three.
Some of the more common types of medications prescribed to help with anxiety and migraines are anxiolytics, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (like nortriptyline or amitriptyline). Sometimes, these are used to treat anxiety disorders in people that don’t have headaches, too.
In addition to this, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be helpful for those with migraines and PTSD.
In CBT, you’ll work with a trained professional to identify behaviors that aggravate your condition (like things that may trigger your PTSD) and then come up with ways to change those reactions or more healthily cope with those triggers.
If tension headaches are bothering you, there are a variety of lifestyle tweaks you can make to try to help them go away. Hot or cold showers, over-the-counter pain relievers, avoiding alcohol and a gentle massage may all help.
Anxiety disorders come with a number of different symptoms. One physical symptom that some people experience is migraine headaches.
Though there is no research that pinpoints if this is a super common symptom, there is research that people with various anxiety disorders deal with different types of headaches.
For example, people with GAD are more likely to get migraines, as are people with panic disorder and PTSD.
Another type of headache connected to anxiety are tension headaches (the kind where you feel muscle tension in your neck or scalp).
When it comes to these types of headaches, for some people, they are a minor annoyance, while other people feel moderate pain or even severe pain that inhibits their daily life.
No matter what, if you notice you have anxiety headaches, it’s always a good idea to speak with a healthcare provider. You can tell them what’s going on and they may suggest you take certain anti-anxiety medications, explore therapy or make lifestyle tweaks.
If you’d like help finding someone to speak to, you may want to consider an online consultation with a mental health provider.
In time, you should be able to find a way to address both your anxiety disorder and migraine pain.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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