As I write this article, Christmas shopping season and holiday parties are in full swing, and the Hanukkah celebration has begun. Malls are full of harried shoppers and children lining up to tell Santa what they want this year, Christmas decorations are going up, and in the midst of all the excitement most people are experiencing at least an occasional tension headache. It’s the result of striving for something that doesn’t even exist outside of the movies – a perfect holiday.
I don’t mean to make light of tension headaches. We all have them and I know first-hand how painful they can be. My father always insisted he never had a headache, but his philosophy was that anything he ignored didn’t exist. Come to think of it, he may have been onto something, because the best way to deal with that chaotic period of time from late November to early January is to admit that there is no such thing as a perfect holiday, or for that matter a perfect family, so you might as well just cool it.
Physically a tension headache is a vascular problem. It begins with muscle strain around the head and neck which causes changes in the size of blood vessels in the head similar to those I’ve recently written about in migraines and cluster headaches. In fact, some physicians suspect that tension headaches are a mild form of migraine. They may feature throbbing pain that feels like a tight band around the head.
Triggers for tension headaches include many of the same things that trigger migraines. These include hormone changes, stress, depression, anxiety, change in sleep pattern, eye strain, or the environment (a smoky room, noise, etc.). They can also be caused by overindulgence in alcohol, drugs of all types, low blood sugar, overwork (especially if you remain in one position for a long time such as at a computer), or, as I can attest, by clenching your jaw or gritting your teeth or both.
Therefore, prevention and treatment methods include stress reduction, exercise, regular sleep, eating properly and not overdoing, all those things you’re missing if you’re stressed out about the holidays. Although these headaches seem unavoidable for most of us, I do have one suggestion. Make some time for yourself daily, no matter how hard it is to fit in. Just a soak in the tub, lying quietly with a wet cloth over your eyes for a bit, meditation, yoga, or a walk in a park can do wonders for your outlook.