Your to-do list seems to be getting longer instead of shorter, your phone keeps buzzing with urgent requests and it seems like every 5 minutes you’re getting an invite for yet another pointless meeting.
As you power through to get everything done, you notice a dull pain starting to spread across your forehead.
Instinctively, you reach for the Advil, down a couple of them with a gulp of water and get straight back to work.
A few hours go by and it seems like your headache is not getting any better. So, you take a couple more pills.
By the time you get home, you feel frazzled, drained...and that numbing headache is still going strong. It’s not one of those skull-crushing debilitating headaches. It’s the more common, annoying ache that just seems to linger for hours on end.
We can totally relate. Sometimes, it seems that the only way to cure these headaches is to lie in a dark, silent room. And yet, they always seem to crop up at the worst possible times.
To deal with these headaches at work, we’ve been known to put on our noise-cancelling headphones - and not play any music - just for a little bit of peace...and also so that people will leave us alone.
We’ve also taken ourselves to the porcelain meditation space - the toilet...a lot. More than we’d like to openly admit.
What we now know is that there is another way, a better way to deal with this.
But before we get into the remedies, we need to understand why these kinds of dulling headaches happen in the first place.
What Are Tension Headaches?
A lot of times a headache isn’t bad enough for us to complain about or take sick leave for, so we just work our way through the pain.
Tension headaches are also generally thought to be less severe than their cousin, the almighty migraine. They may not be as extremely intense, but tension headaches can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.
There are two types of tension headaches:
Episodic tension headaches, which are experienced on no more than 15 days in a month.
Chronic tension headaches, which are experienced on more than 15 days in a month.
Symptoms of Tension Headaches
Here’s a very helpful table to tell the difference:
Usually felt on both sides of the head
Usually felt on only one side of the head
A feeling of pressure or tightness
A throbbing or pulsing pain
Little or no noise and / or light sensitivity
Extreme noise and / or light sensitivity
Vision not affected
Vision affected with blurred sight or an ‘aura’ (seeing flashing lights, wavy lines or dots)
Not accompanied by other symptoms
Usually accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea and dizziness
Causes of Tension Headaches
Here’s a list of potential causes they think can contribute to or trigger tension headaches:
However, with tension headaches being also known as stress headaches, clearly stress is a huge factor.
The Cleveland Clinic found that episodic tension headaches are often triggered by a specific stressful event. It’s like when your boss asks you to do an urgent excel analysis at 4pm for a meeting tomorrow morning at 9am (WTF, right?).
On the other hand, chronic tension headaches are usually caused by ongoing stress, such as a constant high-workload job.
But how does this stress end up as a headache?
Some scientists believe that it is the tension in our muscles which leads to the headache.
When stressed, we often unknowingly clench our jaw, shrug our shoulders and wrinkle our foreheads. All this muscle contracting could lead to muscle tension which travels through our muscles to eventually form a headache.
Other scientists are now looking towards chemicals in the brain as the root cause. Drastic changes in the level of chemical hormones can activate pain pathways in the brain, causing headaches.
While scientists have some catching up to do on the “how” of these headaches, they all agree that stress is a big “why” and that there are many natural ways to relieve them.
Say Goodbye to Tension Headaches
What’s wrong with OTC (over the counter) medication?
We’re so used to reaching for an aspirin or ibuprofen when a headache strikes that it’s almost second nature. It’s easy, cheap and readily available. So, is it really that bad an idea?
While medication certainly is the answer in many cases, there are a few things to consider before reaching for the pills next time a headache strikes.
Side effects - as with all medication, pain relief tablets cause a range of side effects which you won’t get with natural remedies. These can be everything from constipation to depression.
Rebound headaches - frequent use of these drugs may cause rebound headaches so you end up making things worse, stuck in a bad cycle.
Dependence - overuse of OTC medications can lead to physical dependency, where your body needs the medication consistently to be pain-free or even addiction, which is a physical, mental and emotional dependency.
But don’t panic.
This doesn’t mean that we should never take pain relief tablets - rather that we can alternate them with some of the natural remedies below to avoid overuse.
Natural Headache Relief
The good news is that there are some cheap, easy and, most importantly, quick natural remedies which can have you back to your normal self in no time.
A) Quick Actions
Next time you get a headache, do a quick check - are you wearing a headband? Is your hair tied up too tightly? Do you have headphones on blasting loud music? Are your glasses pinching your nose? Removing these may help relieve the pain.
2. Breathing exercises - sometimes a simple breathing exercise can relieve your headache.
The simplest and easiest thing to do (without attracting strange looks from your co-workers) is rhythmic breathing.
To do this, slowly breathe in for 8-10 seconds and slowly breathe out for 8-10 seconds. It’s as simple as that. Keep this rhythm going for a while and you’ll find that your headache subsides and you feel calmer.
Try our soundless breathing meditation animation video below. It’s perfect for when you’re at your desk. No headphones needed. Just follow the animation.
It’s a quickie at only about a minute a half long.
VIDEO: Silent Breathing Meditation Timer 1 Round
YOUTUBE: Cubicle Therapy
3. Heat pack - applying heat to your forehead and the back of your neck can help to relax and loosen the muscles, relieving your headache.
You can find microwavable and reusable gel-based hot compresses at most pharmacies. Buy one and keep it at your desk for fast headache relief.
4. Stretching - as headaches may be caused by tightness in your neck and shoulders, doing some simple stretches to relax and loosen them up can help.
This video teaches some easy-to-remember stretches which can be done at your desk (obviously not the lying down one at the end).
Warning: the opening music of the video may cause headaches. 😉
VIDEO: Tension Headache Relief with Simple Stretches
YOUTUBE: Ask Doctor Jo
The idea here is to separate yourself mentally from the pain by labeling it or identifying it as just another thought in your head that can disappear...poof.
It’s all very weird, we know. Watch the short video below and follow along.
VIDEO: How To Get Rid Of Headache Or Migraine In 2 Minutes Or Less
YOUTUBE: Kamil's View - Mastery of Life
So, get outta the cube and get outside for some fresh air.
Either go for a slow walk or sit quietly outside. In either case, include the same breathing exercise mentioned above to calm things down a bit.
B) Food & Drink
It can also help to increase the efficiency of painkillers if you decide to take them later on.
So, next time you feel a headache coming on, take a short tea or coffee break. In addition to the caffeine, stepping away from your desk is a great mental break that can also help ease your headache.
2. Nuts - Almonds are rich salicin, something which is also found in many over-the-counter painkillers.
Keeping a bag of almonds on your desk and training yourself to reach for those instead of the aspirin could keep you headache-free and help you avoid the dreaded 3 o’clock slump.
Plus, they’re a great stress-relief snack that’s high in fiber and nutrient dense.
3. Water - it seems obvious and many of us know that we should drink more water yet most of us simply don’t do it.
To make it easier to stay hydrated, buy a reusable water bottle and take it everywhere with you. Keep it on your desk throughout the working day. Seeing the bottle in front of you makes you more likely to drink water.
You only need a small mini drop. Don’t go overboard with it because the scent may bother your cubicle neighbors.
Here are some of the more common scents:
1. Lavender - as well as helping with headaches, lavender oil has a general calming effect, so it’s the perfect remedy for a stress headache.
2. Peppermint - If you think lavender oil makes you smell like an old lady, you can try peppermint instead.
This has a cooling effect on the body and as an added bonus, it also energizes and makes you more alert for all that work you still have to get through.
3. Basil - if you don’t want to smell like mouthwash, then basil is the oil for you. It’s a muscle relaxant which makes it perfect for headache relief. It might make you hungry though.
4. Rose - and if none of those scents appeal to you, you can’t go wrong with a classic!
Essential oils are easy to find at most health stores, pharmacies or online. So, stop by one on the way home or during your normal weekend food shopping and grab a few.
D) Herbs & Supplements
The lack of magnesium may be one of the contributors of our tension headaches, so taking a supplement is an effective treatment for many. Be careful though, sometimes these supplements can have digestive side effects, so start with a small dose. Nobody wants to cure their headache only to end up with diarrhea instead!
2. B Vitamins - another option is to take a B-complex vitamin. These have been shown to reduce headaches and, as they are water soluble, any excess is flushed out when you piss. A much happier toilet situation.
3. Ginger - herbs that are recommended for headache relief are feverfew and butterbur. But if, like us, you’ve never heard of them and wouldn’t have a clue where to even find them, then ginger is great too!
You can take this in the form of a capsule. But why do that when you could make a delicious ginger tea?
Hint: It doesn’t have to be fresh ginger tea - you can mix some ginger powder with hot water or use a ginger tea bag.
You can find supplements and ginger tea at health stores, and at most grocery stores these days.
Another Viewpoint On Headaches
Dr. Fraser Crain from Cheers elaborates on this quite well.
VIDEO: A good case of psychoanalysis
YOUTUBE: Valentin Strasser
Making the Switch
Our suggestions would be to:
1. Start small - choose 1 or 2 of the natural remedies above to test out over the coming weeks.
2. Be prepared - buy the necessary ingredients or learn the techniques, so you’re ready when the next headache comes a-knocking; no need to scramble around finding stuff.
3. Record results - make a little note after taking each remedy so you can figure out which is most effective for you.
4. Be patient - it does take a little bit of effort and a little bit of time to transition into natural headache relief - but the long term benefits are so worth it!
Prevention is the Cure
Many of us are under-resourced and over-stretched, but the deadlines and demands just keep on coming. That means that the burden falls on us as individuals to find more efficient ways of managing our workload and protecting our well-being.
Luckily, there are a few easy tactics you can implement right away to reduce the burden of your workload - and no, quitting your job is not one of them.
A) The Power Of No
If you want to be liked by your colleagues and impress those with influence, surely you should say yes to everything, work your ass off and consistently go above and beyond, right?
This approach will leave you exhausted and overworked. And, the real kicker is that your career progression will probably suffer.
Instead of being the best at the things you’re supposed to do, you have less time to master them because you’re taking on all of this extra work that won’t necessarily get you ahead.
Helping Janet with her presentation because she’s PowerPoint-less and finding a birthday present for Paul’s daughter because he’s absolutely clueless is not going to get you your next promotion.
Unless Paul is the big boss, then you might get some brownie points.
Of course, sometimes it’s nice to help people out and you may even enjoy some of the random tasks that get thrown your way but you have to be selective about it.
Learning to say no to things that don’t serve you - and, frankly, aren’t your responsibility - will free up more time for you to kick ass in your job and say yes to other things because you want to, not because you think you should.
It will also help you to feel less overworked and, therefore, less stressed. And less stress = fewer stress headaches. Hurray!
Wanna learn more about standing your ground at work? Check out this article. It will teach you exactly how to say no and set smart boundaries at work.
B) Get Your Priorities Straight
We don’t do the things that we know need to get done now and do other little (usually more fun) tasks instead.
Working on that creative marketing banner is a whole lot more fun than having to analyze and fix that crazy complex excel workbook.
We also get confused about what work is ‘important’ and what work is ‘urgent’.
Learning to prioritize effectively can help us to be more efficient and therefore more productive, and reduce our stress levels at the same time.
There are a number of different tools you can use to help you prioritize your work projects and tasks. You’ve got to explore and find out what works best for you.
We often use the Eisenhower matrix method. You can read more about it here and it’ll walk you through the process step-by-step.
C) Don’t Multitask, Learn To Monotask Instead
But one of the biggest mistakes we make is to think that we can tackle multiple things all at the same time, or switch back and forth between tasks so as to get through them quicker.
You think you’re an excellent multi-tasker?
Well, we’ve got some bad news for you.
Multi-tasking literally doesn’t exist. No, this is not alternative facts - it’s backed by science.
Our brains cannot - repeat, cannot - focus on more than one thing at a time. Even though it may seem like it can.
We’ve all been living a lie.
When you think you’re multitasking, your brain is actually switching focus at lightning speed between tasks.
That might sound like a good thing, but this means that you’re effectively tiring your brain out. And, in that split second when you’re switching your focus, you’re not actually focusing on either task - there’s a delay.
Then, once you flip back to whatever it was that you were working on, it takes time to ramp up your thinking again. This leads to tasks actually taking longer to complete, and being done at a lower level of accuracy.
Mono-tasking (obviously) or “single-tasking”. Never heard of it? Read all about it here. You’ll thank us.
Banish The Headaches & Bring On The Productivity
You want to be a productive contributor to the team, but not with all the suffering.
With how things are in the corporate world, the stresses of workloads, projects and tasks will always be there, no matter what.
But, it doesn’t mean that the associated stress headaches have to tag along too.
You can be in control of it and cut it loose, naturally without having to reflexively reach into your desk drawer for those headache meds.
So, the next time you feel that head tightening feeling coming on, try one of these ideas and before you know it, you’ll start becoming better and better at managing your headaches.
And there you have it! You’ll be ready to leave behind a life of pill-popping and mental bathroom breaks and live a more sensible and healthy work life.