Can CBT Help with Headaches? Tips to Manage It

Written by: Ankita Kathad – MA
(Clinical Psychology)

Last updated date : April 19, 2022

Headache is a condition that most of us face at some point in life. It involves pain in the head and neck region. The pain can be short term or long term. Sometimes it can even last for a couple of days. Headache is also a major reason why we miss school or work. You can eat some medicines for headaches. You can also use therapy to ease your headache. Can CBT help with headaches? In this article, we explore if CBT can help with headaches and what is cognitive therapy for headaches.

Headaches can be caused for many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • Stress or tension
  • Migraine
  • Head injury
  • Lack of sleep
  • Head tumours
  • Cold or nose blockage
  • Disease of brain
  • Sinus

Headaches are caused mainly due to an interaction between the brain, the blood vessels and the nerves. When triggered, these nerves send messages to the brain. The brain sends pain signals in return. Additionally, improper sleep, diet, alcohol, weather or loud noise can also cause headaches.

Chapter 1:

Can CBT Help with Headaches?

What is CBT? CBT or cognitive behaviour therapy is a form of psychotherapy. In this, people learn to change their negative thought patterns. As people change their negative thought patterns, unhealthy behaviours reduce.

CBT is not based on medicines. That is to say that it offers a core solution to the problem. In our life, negative automatic thoughts can create emotional stress. These negative thoughts come from a negative core belief. Therefore, CBT aims to challenge that core belief. This, in turn, reduces negative thoughts.

Emotional stress and tension are one of the most common causes of headaches. There are three ways that stress might cause a headache. Firstly, Stress can trigger the biochemical reactions that cause headaches. Secondly, stress can worsen an existing headache. Lastly, headaches for a longer duration can be mentally painful. We can become tired of the headache.

Psychological conditions such as depression can cause headaches. In depression, people remain sad. This creates tension and leads to headaches. Sometimes headaches lead to depression.

During a headache, most of us tend to pop up a pill. This can create a dependency on medications. Moreover, as medicines provide quick relief, they also reduce our tolerance for emotional stress. Therefore CBT can help reduce dependency.

CBT teaches you how to manage headache triggers. It can help you feel better and reduce stress, both of which are typical headache triggers. CBT teaches you how to change your thinking and behaviour to reduce the frequency of headaches. It helps to manage better with the headaches you do have.


Chapter 2:

What Is Cognitive Therapy for Headaches?

Many CBT techniques can help in managing headaches. The therapy aims to identify the triggers, understand the cause and manage the symptoms. For instance, a person can have painful headaches before an exam. CBT will therefore try to understand if there is any exam fear. Additionally using CBT, we can monitor the duration and frequency as well. When pain, trauma or negative beliefs cause stress, CBT is very helpful for headaches. Let us look at what is Cognitive therapy for headaches.

  • Coping strategies: People who suffer from headaches are stuck in a vicious cycle of pain, stress and headache. CBT helps develop skills that strengthen your ability to manage stress and pain. CBT for headaches involves the use of techniques that help in pain management. For instance, the person can learn to identify symptoms such as pain in the eye, muscle tension or tiredness. The person can then reduce the use of cell phones if strong light is the cause of headaches.
  • Challenging negative thoughts: In CBT for headaches, a person questions their negative thoughts related to headaches. CBT helps to identify unhelpful thoughts and responses to stressful events. These are challenged using CBT methods. This helps a person to manage their headache better. For instance, a person having a painful headache may think, “This is the end. I have ruined my day”. Using CBT techniques, he can think “My brain needs some rest, I can take a short break, eat some healthy food, and get back to work”.
  • Biofeedback therapy: In this patients learn how to manage the physical processes that cause headaches. Sensors are attached to the skin or head. The patient receives continuous information, or “feedback,” regarding activity in the monitored muscles. With this knowledge, the patient works to reduce muscle activity to a more manageable level.

Chapter 3:

Self-Help Tips to Manage Headaches

  • Tracking: When we understand our emotions, we can manage them better. We can maintain a headache diary for the same. We can note down which events trigger our headaches. Diary can help in tracking important factors like sleep schedule, water intake, and mood of the day. A tracker helps us understand which methods are useful for us. We can also have a better insight into the problem. It can help us reflect on the underlying causes.
  • Relaxation: When we relax, our brain gets the time to recover. Moreover, our nerves get time to rest. They stop sending warning signals to the brain. Additionally, relaxation can help us think clearly. As we relax, our breathing slows down. Our heartbeat slows and the brain no longer feels a threat. Our facial muscles also ease out. Relaxation can include hobbies, taking a short break, eating a favourite meal or talking to close friends.
  • Deep breathing: When we breathe, we ensure proper oxygen supply to the brain. Deep breathing also helps us bring our attention to our bodies. This distracts our brain from unnecessary triggers.
  • Diet: CBT methods also involve the intake of a proper diet. This helps to rule out any physical causes of headaches. Consuming too much sugar can increase our headaches. If we don’t drink enough water, we may feel fatigued. When the body does not receive enough nutrition, the brain cant concentrate. Chamomile tea is believed to have relaxing properties.
  • Mindfulness meditation: In this method, you have to focus on the present moment. You can observe the body’s sensations. If the mind is wandering off, you can gently bring your focus back to the breathing. The key element is to be gentle with oneself.
At Epsychonline, there are articles that can help to understand headaches better. Do check them out