Jerry's Story: Reducing Stress to Stop Tension Headaches
Jerry, 32, works in customer service at a call center. So he's hunched over a computer for most of his work day.
"I love my job, but it can be stressful. I hold my stress in my shoulders and neck. My shoulders are always up around my ears. A lot of times, I leave at the end of the day with a big headache."
Jerry usually takes acetaminophen or ibuprofen when he gets a tension headache. "They work pretty well to stop my headaches," he says.
But Jerry used to get headaches a couple of times a week. He and his doctor wanted to find ways to prevent the headaches. So Jerry started working with a counselor to learn relaxation techniques.
He could have taken prescription medicine to prevent his headaches. But he wanted to prevent his headaches without drugs if he could. "The counselor I went to said that learning to relax would help my health overall, not just stop my headaches."
Learning how to relax
Jerry worked with a counselor to learn two ways to relax: progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery. (You also can learn these techniques on your own.)
With progressive muscle relaxation, Jerry learned how to reduce muscle tension. He tenses his muscles when he breathes in and then relaxes them when he breathes out. He focuses on all the muscle groups in his body, one area at a time.
Guided imagery taught Jerry how to slow his breathing and imagine himself in a peaceful place. Then he could relax his body and mind.
He was able to do progressive muscle relaxation easily. But he had to practice guided imagery a little more before it worked. "It was hard for me to do it at first," Jerry says. "I would imagine being on a beach in Hawaii. But I knew I wasn't really there, so it was kind of hard to feel relaxed. But after a few times, I really got into it. I added some details to the image. I didn't just see a beach and water. I would hear the waves and see palm trees swaying."
"I started to really feel more relaxed. My breathing slowed, and my muscles relaxed."
Jerry does the progressive muscle relaxation for 20 minutes after he gets home from work. On some days, he does guided imagery instead. He even squeezes in 10 minutes of guided imagery once in a while on a work break.
Not as many headaches
After a few weeks of practicing both techniques, Jerry noticed that he was having fewer headaches.
"Instead of two headaches a week, I now get maybe one every couple of months," he says. "When I get one, I take some ibuprofen and lie down and do the guided imagery. The headaches that I do get go away a lot quicker than they used to."
This story is based on information gathered from many people living with tension headaches.
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Current as of: November 20, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine