How has psychology contributed to understanding and treating headaches?
To the extent that most headaches are caused from stress, then psychology has contributed a great deal to the understanding and treatment of headaches. One of the ways the body reacts to stress is through muscle contractions, including in the head, and through disruptions of the normal functioning of the central nervous system. Stress-related headaches can be debilitating in some individuals, and can obviously have a deleterious impact on one’s mood and productivity. While medications can help alleviate the symptoms of the headache, in effect, the pain, individuals who suffer from chronic headaches associated with stress often find it beneficial to undergo psychological treatment.
Psychologists treating individuals suffering from stress, whether manifested in chronic headaches, digestive problems, or nervous tics, focus on the sources of the stress and work with the patient on ways to better handle that stress. By isolating the causes of stress, often determined by maintenance of a diary noting the precise moment headaches occur and the environment in which the patient is operating at that moment, then the psychologist can help begin to focus on teaching the patient how to respond to external stimuli that cause stress. For example, if it is determined that the underlying cause of stress is one’s difficulty working in a particular environment, then changes to that environment or removal of the patient from that environment may be the answer – admittedly oft-times easier said than done.
In addition, by keeping a diary of instances when stress occurs and results in headaches, the patient can learn how to respond differently when again confronted with those specific conditions. As changes to the external environment can be difficult or impossible, it then becomes incumbent upon the patient to learn how to function in that environment through mental stimulation or relaxation, for instance, through breathing exercises designed to refocus the mind and increase oxygen flow to the brain, or by the development of more effective and less self-destructive coping mechanisms, be it the exercise of greater assertiveness or, conversely, an improved ability to process unpleasant information in such a way that it no longer results in high-levels of stress.
Psychology has contributed substantively to the understanding and treatment of headaches precisely because it is a discipline in which understanding how people respond to external circumstances is a core component of that field of study. To the extent that many people experience stress under a certain set of circumstances and suffer headaches as a result, then psychologists have a great deal to offer.