By: Dr. Mike Olpin
It’s true; the best medication for a stress headache seems to be meditation.
In a new study from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, people who meditated for just 20 minutes a day saw their pain tolerance rise in 4 days. Volunteers learned an ultra-easy technique called mindfulness meditation that teaches you to focus on your breath and stay in the present moment, not worry about what's ahead. Researchers tested the volunteers' pain thresholds with mild electric shocks and found that shocks considered "high pain" before meditating felt mild afterward. Volunteers who didn't learn the meditation had unchanged responses to the shocks. (No, we can't imagine why anyone volunteered for this, though we're grateful that they did.)1
This is great news because about 30%-80% of the adult U.S. population suffer from an occasional tension, or stress headache. Approximately 3% of those suffer from chronic daily tension headaches. Women are twice as likely to suffer from tension-type headaches as men. 2
Many of these poor sufferers don’t realize that medications don't cure headaches and that, over time, pain-relievers and other medications may lose their effectiveness. In addition, all medications have side effects. The truth is that pain medications are not a substitute for recognizing and dealing with the stressors that may be causing your headaches.2
This is where the power of the mind comes in. Meditation works by slowing brain wave activity from beta brainwave activity, (when we are awake and alert and stressed), to the deeper levels of theta and delta brainwaves that are experienced when we are in our deepest sleep.3
Researchers have found that people who regularly meditate are able to reach these deeper levels of brainwave activity and enjoy deeper levels of rest after only 5 minutes of meditation compared to one to two hours for people falling asleep! That is powerful because it is when your body is resting deeply, it repairs itself, restores itself, and the immune system works most efficiently.3
Mindfulness meditation doesn't work because your pain is "all in your head." It works because when the pain won't quit, stress and worry kick in, boosting levels of stress hormones. This tricks your brain into thinking the pain is actually worse than it is.1 In other words, many people make their pain worse by stressing about it. Meditation helps to reverse the stress response.
Meditation also seems to be one heck of a great anxiety remedy. England's University of Manchester found that meditation also eased pain by helping the brain stop anticipating it – another stress trigger. Less stress and less pain can also mean better sleep, more motivation to exercise, and even less depression, all of which help us to relax more and hurt less.1
Mindfulness meditation and other relaxation therapies like progressive relaxation and guided imagery are easy to learn. You don’t have to sit on the floor with your legs crossed, or go on any expensive retreats. Many people find it extremely easy to play a meditation download and de-stress for a few minutes, letting their mind relax and their body heal itself. The results may lead to fewer and a far less painful stress headache. For more information on learning this pain reducing, body healing technique check out the some of the sources listed below.
1. Use Your Brain to Relieve Pain http://www.realage.com/blogs/doctor-oz-roizen/use-your-brain-to-relieve-pain?eid=7210&memberid=8626931
2. Tension Headache http://www.medicinenet.com/tension_headache/page3.htm#tocf
3. The World is not a Stressful Place, Olpin, p. 138-141