What’s more debilitating than a pounding headache? It can send you straight into hibernation. But, have you ever thought about trying meditation to help with your aching head? It sounds strange, but meditation might help, especially if paired with our Relieve personal essential oil diffuser which helps ease discomforts throughout the body.
While researchers are yet to agree on the exact causes of headaches and migraines, many do agree that high levels of stress can make the situation worse1. Nonetheless, there’s a growing body of knowledge and evidence that behavioral interventions, such as mindfulness and meditation, can be helpful in alleviating the problem.
Mindfulness Meditation as a Means of Headache Relief
Mindfulness encompasses the various activities that are meant to keep a person calmly aware of their bodily states, emotions, consciousness, thoughts, sensations, and the environment within the present moment. In other words, it’s the act of focusing your attention on the present moment, ideally from a non-judgmental mindset.
The purpose of mindfulness is taking an inventory of the current state of your body and mind, essentially shifting your focus on feeling other than thinking. In the context of headache relief, mindfulness meditation is often considered a means of stress reduction, since stress can be linked to headaches.
Mindfulness has two key aspects, observing and stopping.
- Stopping means “being” rather than “doing”, which enables a gentle, quiet, and focused concentration of moment to moment, which is typically achieved by focusing on the breath. Stopping allows for observation through mindfulness, which means non-judging awareness of experiencing the present moment, which allows whatever is in the moment to be exactly as it is without trying to fix or manipulate it in any way.
- Observing entails expanding your field of awareness beyond your breathing, essentially to include the all-important body sensations along with thoughts and emotions, without becoming attached to them.
Controlled research has demonstrated how mindfulness can improve depression, anxiety, and our response to physical pain. And while we await the countless studies that evaluate its effectiveness on headaches, the already available studies suggest that mindfulness most likely has a key role in treating headaches.
The Effects of Meditation on the Brain
Researchers are currently trying to learn more about what happens in the body while a person is meditating. Meditation may inhibit a part of the nervous system that’s responsible for stress. Frequent headaches can be aggravated or triggered by tension, stress, and anxiety. Mind-body techniques like meditation can help relieve headaches and migraines by treating the underlying stress.
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MRI scans of the brain have shown that people with migraines have a decreased volume of grey matter compared to people who don’t, especially in parts of the brain that are involved with perception, emotion, decision making, and even executive functions like working memory, self-regulation, and problem-solving2. Changes in the volume of gray matter in the brainstem are also correlated with the attack frequency and duration of migraines3.
Studies of functional brain MRIs have demonstrated that neurotransmitters like melatonin, dopamine, cortisol, serotonin, and norepinephrine, all of which are associated with the neurological functions affected by the depletion of grey matter in people with migraines, tend to respond to meditation in a way that helps to counteract the adverse effects of the migraines.
Melatonin, the sleep-wake hormone of the body, and dopamine, responsible for executive functions of the brain, are found to increase with meditation. Norepinephrine and cortisol, which are the body’s fight or flight chemicals, have been shown to decrease with the practice of meditation. The activity of serotonin is regulated as well4.
Evidence for Meditation as Treatment for Headaches
In a new, small study published in a journal Headache, meditation was suggested as a possible way to relieve the duration and intensity of migraines and headaches. Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s researchers assigned 19 participants with migraines to either a standard, “usual” medical care routine or an 8-week program called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which ideally involves yoga and mindfulness meditation. The groups that participated in MBSR meditated for about 30 minutes daily.
All the participants had some history of either a migraine with an aura or one without aura and experienced at least 4 to 14 migraines a month for at least a year, which is a relatively significant amount. They were also allowed to continue taking abortive and preventative migraine therapies as they usually did, and a huge percentage would take some form of preventative medication for migraines.
The participants would meet weekly for a 2-hour session and in a 6-hour mindfulness retreat day. All were asked to perform 45-minutes assignments on meditation and yoga on a daily basis and were asked to maintain a daily log.
The first MBSR class started with mindful eating, mindfulness of breathing, and a body scan— a sequential mindful attention to all body parts. The subsequent classes ideally built on these practices, encouraging the integration of meditation and mindfulness into daily activities, such as washing the dishes or taking a shower.
A conspicuous theme of this course entailed teaching the participants on how to use the MBSR skills as a way of minimizing the negative effects of stress, along with developing proactive and adaptive coping strategies during stressful situations. This was done mainly by focusing attention on the natural rhythm of the breath.
The group that practiced meditation reported less severe headaches and nearly 1.4 lesser migraines a month, though these effects weren’t so statistically significant, perhaps because of using a small sample size. Nonetheless, the headaches became comparably much shorter, at around three hours fewer per a headache in comparison to the control group.
According to the lead study author, Rebecca Wells Erwin, MD and assistant neurology professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, the participants who practiced meditation were able to have a sense of personal control over their migraines. It’s quite interesting that a simple intervention like meditation can actually change how people interpret their pain.
Stress is a widely recognized trigger for headaches, and mindfulness has been shown to be effective at combating stress. A number of studies have demonstrated that mindful meditation can help curb stress responses, and in a review published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found out, it can help in the treatment of anxiety and depression about as much as antidepressants.
Even on brief training, meditation is associated with an increase in the grey matter volume in the regions of the brain associated with emotional reactions, decision-making, memory, cognitive planning, and flexibility.5
When used as a form of stress reduction, meditation may improve the awareness and the management of stressors. Experienced meditators have shown an extensive activation of the executive functions such as planning, working memory, as well as cognitive flexibility during prolonged attention,6 with less activation of the regions associated with emotion. Expert meditators also have an extensive control of their insula and frontoparietal networks, which have a key role in motor control, perception, cognitive functions, and self-awareness.
There’s also a great number of ongoing studies that utilize MRI scans of the brain to understand how meditation can be helpful in reducing headaches and stress. More research is necessary because this is still a young research field, and the study sample sizes used so far are small. Moreover, there are few longitudinal studies available.
How to Use Meditation for Headache Relief
Learning how you can consciously relax your body can help you release the physical effects of stress, and thereby lessen the intensity of your headache. So, the next time a headache seems to be coming on, take about 10 minutes of your time to practice this short meditation to alleviate the pain.
Find a relaxed posture
Get into a comfortable, seated position, or lie down if possible. If you’ve chosen to sit down, stretch upward through your head’s crown and let your shoulders slide away from your ears.
Take Deep Breaths
Now close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Concentrate on making each of your inhales and exhales as long as possible. Every time you breathe out, try to relax as deeply as you can.
Scan Your Skull for Tension Points
While holding your body still, shift your focus upward towards the crown of your head. Start seeking out the various points of tension in your skull mentally. Whenever you find a point that feels tight, start to imagine all that tension breaking up away into crumbs. Now begin working through the crown of your head as you systematically release the tension as you scan your skull.
Once the top of your heads feels softer and more relaxed than before, use the same technique to release the tension in your eyes, forehead, jaw, etc.
Scan the Rest of Your Body
Once you’ve finished scanning your head, scan downwards towards your neck and shoulders for individual tension points/ start imagining the tension crumbling and breaking up like a pile of sand, as you shift your focus through your body.
Continue this through the rest of your body; towards to arms and hands and downwards towards your torso and your legs. After you’ve made it to your feet, reverse the process and begin scanning from the back upwards up to the crown of your head.
Focus on the Sound of your breath
When you finish relaxing your body mentally, now you can focus on calming your mind. Do this by redirecting your attention to the sound of your exhales for about 2 to 3 minutes. Once your mind starts to wander elsewhere, forget it and draw it back to your breath.
Basic Breathing Exercise
Although more research is needed to approve if it’s effective to get in touch with your internal zen for dealing with headaches, it doesn’t hurt to give spiritual meditation, or one of its other variations, a try. This practice only takes 20 minutes a day, and if nothing else, it will teach you how to relax and take some time for yourself away from your possibly stressful daily life. Here’s how to do it:
- Find a quiet room, a place where you will not be disturbed. Be sure to put your phone on vibrate or switch it off. This is especially important for beginners so that you minimize the number of possible distractions.
- Sit in a comfortable position. Take your time to find the position that will be completely comfortable for you. You can choose to sit either on a chair or on the bed, as long as your body is resting. Once you’ve found the position, close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on your breathing, without interfering with its natural flow – don’t try to change it in any way. Become aware of yourself breathing in; the air passing through your nostrils and into the lung, and it flowing out as you breathe out. Don’t worry if you find your breathing changing. Just let your body breath however it wants to.
- In case your mind tries to wander off, make a point of bringing your attention back to your breaths. An easy way to do this is thinking of how good it feels to have air just flowing in and out of your lungs. Notice how relaxing it is? Good. Now just let your body breath at its most natural pace.
- Once you’re ready, take thing a notch higher by concentrating on the present moment. Let everything go. Let go of your thoughts, anxieties, and fears. Just be in the moment. When you master this step, put drown the phrases that always uplift you and repeat these phrases to yourself while you meditate.
The Bottom Line
All in all, meditation is what you make of it. Whether you succeed in finding your zen space while channeling energy from within or from above, nothing beats having a moment of quiet and peace in the middle of a stressful day. If this means that you will have fewer headaches, why not try it?
If you’ve been struggling to find the perfect combination of effective alternative treatments for headaches, you’re not alone. Meditation has been proven to combat stress and should go a long way in helping you alleviate the pain. Remember to check out our Relieve blend to enhance the mindfulness in your meditation and to help ease your aches and pains, from head to toe.
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