This Is Why You Have A Headache

02.04.20

I remember a time when washing your hands didn’t take three hours and you could touch your face in peace.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about the stress that this constant stream of bad news is causing us, and how it’s manifesting in our physical health. American physician Dr. Brian Cole said, “Stress can manifest in different ways throughout the body, but routinely it can cause headaches and migraines. In fact, people who suffer from severe headaches are three times more likely to report anxiety than those without.” One theory as to the cause of stress headaches is muscle tension: the muscles in our body tense up when they sense any kind of perceived danger, even when it’s fabricated in our mind, as a way of safeguarding itself against injury or pain. Therefore, chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more-or-less constant state of guardedness and thus cause tension-type headaches. 

The trouble is, most of us don’t actually know that we’re chronically stressed and are therefore confused as to why, at 27 year’s old, we’re plagued with headaches and lower back pain and a weird feeling in our stomach most days. We’ve convinced ourselves that living in a permanent state of worry about the future is par for the course  – which makes sense when you consider that roughly twenty-five of our formative years have involved a major recession, countless terrorist attacks, tangibly worsening inequality, devastating climate emergencies and mass incompetence by nearly all global leaders during a global pandemic. 

Where am I going with this? Meditation! I know you’re sick of people telling you to meditate (don’t worry I don’t do it either), but this is an instance in which a technique like meditation has been scientifically proven to work. Not only does meditation significantly relax muscles and increase blood flow around the body, but it can also help to address symptoms of anxiety that aren’t muscle-related, like indigestion, dizziness and nausea. Dr Cole explains, “These symptoms originate in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which coordinates our fight-or-flight response. When activated, the amygdala starts a chain reaction within the brain: it tells the hypothalamus to release something called the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which then triggers the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then enters the bloodstream where it prompts adrenal glands to release our stress hormone, cortisol.”

Which brings me back to old mate meditation. Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, tested the benefits of meditation using brain scans and found that almost all mindfulness techniques, when done diligently, can actually re-wire the brain in as little as eight weeks: “After an eight-week period we found differences in brain volume in five different regions of the brain, including a reduction in the size of the amygdala. So the fight-or-flight part of the brain which is responsible for anxiety, fear and stress in general literally shrunk in patients who meditated! We also found thickening in places like the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation, as well as the temporo parietal junction, which is associated with perspective-taking, empathy and compassion.”

Lazar concluded, “It’s well-documented that our cortex (associated with memory and decision making) shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds. That’s kind of amazing. 

So if – after being bombarded with all that science – you now feel compelled to create some mindfulness of your own, you might enjoy the Headspace app, which make the concept of meditation far less intimidating than you’d expect. Or you could simply try connecting with your breath the next time you find yourself standing at the sink, lathering soap between your fingers and palms, wondering if you should start a Tik Tok. (The answer is no). 


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