Health Topics

Relaxation and Other Alternative Approaches for Managing Headaches

Relaxation and Other Alternative Approaches for Managing Headaches

It’s common for people to attribute headaches to stress, but there’s no official headache classification of "stress headaches." However, stress certainly plays a role in causing a headache or making any headache worse. During stressful events, certain chemicals in the brain are released to combat the situation (known as the "flight or fight" response). The release of these chemicals can provoke vascular changes that can trigger headaches or make them worse.

Learning relaxation techniques can help manage your headache by modifying the pain and/or frequency of the headaches and prevent them from getting worse.

Methods to Relax or Reduce Stress

There are several methods that can be tried to relax or reduce stress. View the listing below for helpful tips and tricks.

  • Breathing exercises
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Mental imagery relaxation (also called guided imagery)
  • Biofeedback
  • Relaxation to music
  • Counseling/cognitive therapy (to help patients recognize and relieve stress)
  • Alternative therapies, including physical therapy, massage, hypnosis, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture/acupressure, aromatherapy and herbal therapy

Breathing Exercises

In order to learn how to relax, you need to become familiar with your own breathing patterns and change them in ways that will help you relax. If you are anxious, you tend to hold your breath and speak in a high–pitched voice as you exhale. On the other hand, if you are depressed, you tend to sigh and speak in a low–pitched voice as you exhale.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that teaches you to consciously concentrate on relaxing every muscle in your body beginning at your toes and working all the way up to your head. Reducing muscular tension helps reduce pain.

Guided Imagery

Mental imagery relaxation, or guided imagery, is a proven form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. Guided imagery coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind -- a "mental escape." It has been shown to dramatically decrease pain and the need for pain medication, enhance sleep and strengthen the immune system and enhance the ability to heal.


Biofeedback uses electronic devices to measure physiologic processes such as breathing rate, heart rate, skin temperature, skin conductance and muscle tension. A biofeedback unit processes the electronic signals and "feeds back" the information to the user in the form of sounds or graphs on a computer screen.

Biofeedback allows you to learn how your body responds in stressful situations, how to gain control over certain physiologic functions that cause tension and physical pain, and how to create a state of total body relaxation. If a headache, such as a migraine, begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to stop the attack before it becomes full blown.

Relaxation exercises can be combined with your favorite music in the background. Some people find it easier to relax while listening to specially designed relaxation audio tapes, which provide music and relaxation instructions.