This Is Why You're Stressed, According to a Clinical Health Psychologist



Ah, headaches. It's no secret that the holiday season—although filled with cheer—can cause stress. Shopping for gifts, preparing to travel (try these products to reduce your holiday travel stress), and hosting family can take a toll. In fact, according to a national survey Excedrin conducted this year, 81% of Americans say they’ll get at least one holiday headache in 2016 (though, on average, they think they'll get six).

Head pain expert Dr. Elizabeth Seng explains, "The response is your body's instinctive reaction to a dangerous or stressful situation, commonly known as 'fight or flight.' This reaction can be both helpful and harmful. It’s helpful in situations that require a quick physical response, like jumping out of the street when an oncoming car approaches. It’s less helpful for the kind of stressors the holidays bring: Fighting and fleeing are not helpful responses to congested travel, challenging in-laws, and last-minute shopping. This is called 'chronic stress,' and when it builds up, it can contribute to headaches."

She continues, "Holidays are particularly challenging for people with headaches because they combine many precipitating factors for headaches. They also involve inconsistent sleep, eating at odd times and skipping meals, and drinking more alcohol and caffeine than usual." (And yes, sleeping in counts as inconsistent sleep. Here's how much you should be getting.)

So, what's the best way to deal? For starters, check out these seven anxiety remedies to see which ones work best. In addition, Seng recommends working with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and the best treatment plan for your headaches and lifestyle. "Some stress management strategies I have seen to be successful in people with headaches include relaxation, self-care, biofeedback, and cognitive behavioral therapy," she says. Keep reading below as we explore these strategies in more depth. 


Relaxation is more than watching your favorite show or playing a sport with your friends on the weekend—it involves actively turning off your "fight-or-flight" stress response by turning on your body’s "relaxation response." Seng notes, "When breathing deeply, you use a muscle below your lungs called the diaphragm to breathe. I often instruct my patients to first try deep breathing while lying flat on their back, which aids in achieving the correct muscle movement. When you breathe in, your stomach should expand; when you breathe out, your stomach should go in. Your chest should not move at all. Once you get the correct muscle movement down, try to slow down your breathing by counting. Start at counting to four when you breathe in and four when you breathe out. Then, increase the number one-by-one until you reach the point where your breathing is slow and comfortable." Apparently, meditation has been proven more effective than pain medication.


"The foundational self-care strategy is increasing nourishing activities. To do this, make sure you have a quiet hour to yourself. Sit down, and make a list of all of the things you did yesterday, starting with getting out of bed and brushing your teeth. It will be a LONG list. Then, next to each item, indicate whether the activity is nourishing (taking care of yourself) or depleting (taking resources away from yourself). Try to see if there is a way to increase the amount of time you spend doing nourishing activities, and decrease the amount of time you spend doing depleting activities," explains Seng. Read our open forum about what finding "balance" really means.


"Biofeedback is a form of treatment that helps you see your body reacting to stress in real time and assists you in using relaxation strategies to effectively manage stress," Seng explains. "Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of treatment that works with how you think about situations in your life and learn to change your automatic responses. Biofeedback and relaxation are best accomplished with a licensed psychologist to help guide you through these treatments. A psychologist can also help successfully use relaxation skills and self-care to reduce your stress and improve your headaches. You can ask your doctor to help you find the psychologist that is right for you."