Can Anxiety Cause Headaches or a Heavy Head Feeling?

January 26, 2022   •  Posted in: 

A heavy or uncomfortable feeling in your head can make getting through your day particularly difficult. For example, you may feel like you cannot hold your head up (heavy head) or have a tight band tied around your head. Doctors often associate a heavy head with tiredness, headaches, brain fog, dizziness, neck pain, and pressure in the head and face.

When your head feels heavy, it could be a symptom of several different conditions, so pinpointing the cause is challenging. You will need to assess all your symptoms and recent life events to determine the causes of your uncomfortable feeling in your head. Anxiety is, however, almost always a leading cause of heavy head and tension headaches.

A heavy head is not always a severe condition. However, it could have several causes, ranging from mild headaches and sinus infections to severe concussions and brain tumors.


How Anxiety Affects the Head

Anxiety refers to feeling fearful, worried, or nervous before, during, and after a stressful event. An anxiety attack could lead to pressure and heaviness in your head, along with a racing heart, trouble concentrating, and sweating.

For most people, anxiety comes and goes. However, for others, anxiety can linger and worsen over time. When it persists and interferes with your daily life, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. Examples of anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Anxiety disorders occur due to a mix of genetics and your situational environment, including your upbringing and lifestyle choices. They can sometimes occur with depression and other mental diseases, compounding the symptoms.

Anxiety causes a heavy head feeling because of tension headaches common in people living with the disorder. Most people describe these headaches as feeling like a tight band wrapped around their heads. A tightening of the scalp and neck muscles also causes an anxiety headache.

Why Anxiety Affects the Head

Scientists have linked anxiety to chemical imbalances in your brain and body. [1] They have found several connections between anxiety and strange physical, emotional, and cognitive sensations that primarily affect the head. Below are some common ways anxiety can affect you:

  • Negative self-talk
  • Rumination
  • Constant worry
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Racing thoughts

Researchers agree that people with anxiety find it challenging to control their worrying thoughts, which triggers tension headaches and migraines. [2][3]


Symptoms of Stress and Anxiety

Specific physical symptoms associated with anxiety can cause a strange feeling in the head. Anxiety symptoms can affect the body’s circulatory system. For example, heart palpitations or temporary blood pressure spikes can cause:

  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating on the face
  • A choking sensation

Other common anxiety symptoms are:

  • Anxiety heavy head
  • Anxiety headache
  • Fatigue
  • Derealization and depersonalization
  • Dissociation and disconnection from reality
  • Insomnia
  • Racing thoughts
  • Rumination and obsessive thoughts
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • Pressure in the ear or head
  • Brain fog
  • Numbness, tingling, or pain in the head

Let’s take a deeper look at anxiety headaches and their effects.


Anxiety Headaches

Tension or anxiety headaches are common physical symptoms of anxiety. When you are stressed out, you could have a tension headache. Experiencing frequent and severe headaches could also worsen your anxiety symptoms. The American Migraine Foundation determines that nearly half of Americans living with migraines also suffer from anxiety. [4]

It is not surprising to experience a heavy head because of your body’s physical stress during extreme and continuous stress levels. However, if this is something you regularly face, to the point where it severely interferes with your daily life, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. In this case, it is best to consult a medical professional.

Symptoms of Anxiety Headaches

People living with an anxiety disorder can experience migraines or chronic tension headaches. Different types of headaches have various symptoms as follows:

1. Tension Headaches

These headaches commonly develop with anxiety and stress, but they can have other triggers. They generally improve quickly but could persist for several hours or days. Though these headaches may not be severe enough to affect your daily life, they could still negatively impact your quality of life. Symptoms include:

      • Mild to moderate aching or dull pain
      • Pressure behind your eyes
      • Tightness in your shoulder and neck muscles
      • Pressure that feels like a band tightening around your head
      • Scalp tenderness

2. Migraine Headaches

Anxiety can also cause migraines. It can be challenging to determine one from the other when you get both migraines and tension headaches. Symptoms include:

      • Throbbing or pulsating pain in your head
      • Pain one side or part of your head or face
      • Tingling on one side of your face, arm, or leg
      • Nausea and vomiting
      • Seeing spots of flashing light
      • Feeling lightheaded
      • Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and strong odors
      • Fainting
      • Blurry vision

Migraines can last for days without treatment and become so severe that they prevent you from performing your daily activities. In addition, movement and physical exercise often make you feel worse.

What Causes an Anxiety Headache?

There is no definitive cause of tension headaches and migraines, although there are some common triggers, including:

  • Stress: Research reveals stress is a common trigger. Headaches due to anxiety can occur as a physical response to emotional distress.
  • Lack of Sleep: People with anxiety issues have difficulty sleeping, triggering migraine attacks.
  • Sensitivity to Pain: Researchers discovered people who regularly get headaches are more sensitive to pain. Increased sensitivity can cause muscle tenderness.
  • Muscle Tension: Muscle tension is a crucial aspect of anxiety and stress. Whenever you feel anxious, your body responds by preparing to deal with the cause of your worry. In addition, long-term anxiety makes your body remain ever alert. Consequently, this causes tension in your muscles instead of relaxing once the threat subsides.
  • Change in Serotonin Levels: The serotonin chemical in the brain plays several essential roles in your body, such as stabilizing your mood and feelings of happiness and well-being. It also helps with eating, digestion, and sleeping. Conversely, too much or too little serotonin levels in your brain affect your mental and physical health. For example, a sudden decrease results in headaches due to the constricted blood vessels and release of neuropeptides.

How to Prevent an Anxiety Heavy Head and Headache

While you may not entirely prevent headaches from occurring, you can take some steps to help decrease their frequency and severity. These include:

  • Recognize Your Triggers: When you get migraines, try and identify what triggers them, including stress, caffeine, alcohol, hormonal changes, insufficient or low-quality sleep, and dehydration.
  • Practice Relaxation: Take time off your daily schedule to relax to reduce anxiety symptoms. Some physical exercises (like yoga, deep breathing techniques, and tai chi) can help you relax, especially when you rest and sleep enough. Additionally, you can practice mindfulness exercises such as meditation, guided imagery, and progressive relaxation therapy.
  • Practice Self-Care: Anxiety affects your sleep, appetite, and overall health. Therefore, practicing self-care helps reduce many anxiety symptoms, including headaches. For example, get seven to nine hours of restful sleep daily, do regular physical activity, drink enough water, and avoid skipping meals.

How to Treat Anxiety Headaches

Anxiety headaches have various treatment options, depending on the type and severity. Some focus on treating the underlying causes of stress and anxiety, while others concentrate on pain relief.

1. Pain Relieving Medication

You can treat occasional tension headaches using prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) pain-relief medications. Common OTC medication includes ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen (Aleve). Additionally, Triptans prescription drugs treat both tension headaches and migraines by increasing serotonin levels in your brain to reduce inflammation and constricting blood vessels.

However, pain-relieving medicines can result in overuse and taking higher doses than recommended, which causes severe side effects.

2. Anti-Anxiety Medication

If OTC and prescription medications don’t treat your headaches, talk to your doctor about different treatment approaches such as anti-anxiety medication (muscle relaxers) to decrease the frequency and severity of persistent headaches.

3. Alternative Remedies

You can try alternative remedies such as:

      • Cold compress to soothe the painful spot and resting in a dark room.
      • Acupuncture addresses your body’s energy imbalances and blockages that cause pain and distress.
      • Biofeedback uses electrodes on your skin to help you learn to recognize when you get stressed so you can control your response and relax areas of tension.

4. Talk Therapy

A long-term treatment approach for tension headaches is getting help for your anxiety. Anxiety therapy improves your mental health symptoms and reduces your physical ones. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) treats anxiety by helping you identify and challenge distressing and negative thought patterns.


How to Tell If Anxiety is Causing Your Headaches

Many things can cause headaches and migraines, so you need to identify whether your headaches are due to anxiety or something else. Knowing the cause helps you treat it correctly. Anxiety can cause a weird feeling in your head. You might have anxiety if you experience strange sensations accompanied by:

  • Hot flashes
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Heavy and quick breathing rate
  • Blushing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Hair loss


How to Relieve Pressure in Your Head

Relieving pressure in your head also reduces your chances of getting tension headaches. Luckily, you have several options available to reduce or clear it. These include:

  • Drinking enough water. Dehydration increases anxiety and its resultant physical and mental symptoms. Consuming the recommended amount of water per your daily activity and demographics helps prevent dehydration.
  • Stretching regularly to relax your muscles, especially in your neck, helps relieve tension in your body.
  • Incorporate breathing exercises to help calm your body.
  • Do physical exercise to release hormones and neurotransmitters to calm your mind and muscles.
  • Decrease the time you spend around bright lights and loud noises to alleviate the pressure on your head.


Long Term Treatment

Medication should be a last resort when dealing with head pressure and tension headaches. Head pressure and anxiety are merely symptoms of stress and anxiety. While it is okay to relieve migraines using a medication, your treatment options should also tackle the underlying issues of your physical symptoms. Besides, some medications can exacerbate your condition instead of relieving it.

The best way to start relieving your anxiety-heavy head is by reducing your stress. If the pain is physical around your head and neck, look for ways to effectively relieve it, such as massage or acupuncture.

Next, look into areas of your daily life that cause your anxiety – for example, examine your relationships, work environment, or home environment. Finally, find out how to make changes to reduce your stress and anxiety.

Most people experience stress and anxiety occasionally, but you need to manage and treat it if it takes over your life. If the changes you need are complex, seek help from family, friends, and professionals.

Additionally, always be in the moment and focus on what you can handle and control. For example, enjoy time with your family and avoid your mind wandering off and worrying about overdue bills. If you have multiple unpleasant thoughts constantly running through your mind, you risk raising your stress and anxiety levels or getting physical symptoms like headaches.


Get Professional Help

If you suspect you suffer from one or more anxiety disorders, seek professional help. Anxiety can slowly creep into your life and take it over if you fail to identify and remedy it immediately. Thus, schedule a mental healthcare appointment for that weird feeling in your head. Anxiety does not go away on its own. Instead, it can fester and grow into physical symptoms, like migraines.

Seek medical help if you have recurring headaches or migraines, muscle tension, heavy head, and feel occasional pressure in your head. Treating an anxiety headache with medication relieves the symptoms, but leaves the problem intact.

The bottom line is that anxiety and stress are ordinary human experiences. However, recurring anxiety with frequent emotional, cognitive, and physical symptoms indicates a problem. Fortunately, anxiety is a treatable condition that requires support and takes time, effort, and goodwill to overcome.

The Center • A Place of HOPE is a top treatment facility for depression, anxiety treatment, trauma, addiction, eating disorders, abusive relationships, and more. Contact us today.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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