Headaches are one of the most common types of pain. Head pain such as pain in the head, face, eyeballs, ears and teeth is consistently rated by people as more emotionally taxing and disruptive to daily life than other types of pain.

New research shows that headaches are more emotionally difficult to deal with than other types of pain. A  team from Duke University found that the brain’s wiring is the reason that we suffer more from head and face pain.  Specifically, they discovered that the sensory neurons that serve the head and face are wired directly into one of the brain’s principal emotional signalling centres, the parabrachial nucleus (PBL). Sensory neurons are a nerve cell that conducts impulses from a sense organ to the central nervous system. Sensory neurons serving other parts of the body are also connected to the PBL but communicate indirectly.

The team tracked brain activity in mice after irritating either a paw or the face. They found that irritating the face led to higher activity in the brain’s parabrachial nucleus (PBL), a region that is directly wired into the brain’s instinctive and emotional centres. They also found that activating this pathway prompted face pain while silencing the pathway reduced it.

The lead author of the study Fan Wang said,“Usually doctors focus on treating the sensation of pain, but this shows that we really need to treat the emotional aspects of pain as well.” In today’s post, I explore how you can manage the emotional aspects of head pain. If you have regular headaches, seek a medical opinion regarding the cause of your pain. The tips below are for people who have regular or chronic head pain that has been medically investigated.

How can you keep calm with head pain?

  1. Acknowledge that head pain can cause more emotional distress than other types of pain. Avoid getting stuck on thoughts about why you feel as bad as you do, or that you shouldn’t feel as bad as you do or why can’t I cope thoughts.
  2. Instead, make a plan to manage your head pain. Have a go-to plan that you follow for pain in the moment. Also include preventative strategies for any contributing factors such as remaining hydrated, regular massage for tense muscles if they contribute to head pain, pacing activity and managing stress.
  3. Follow medical advice regarding the use of pain-relieving medications. Many people I see take their medication well past the point that the pain started and this makes it harder for the pain relief to be effective. This habit is often due to beliefs that the person should be possible to cope without medication, that medication is bad for you or fears surrounding becoming addicted to the medication.
  4. Use calming techniques when you are in pain. In particular, the Acceptance of Emotions/ Sensations meditation can be helpful to develop a peaceful relationship with your pain instead of a struggle with your pain.
  5. Focusing on values-based living can help. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a third wave cognitive behavioral therapy, has been shown to be very helpful to help people manage pain. A core focus of the treatment is developing a peaceful relationship with your pain and moving towards the person you want to be through action. This can be helpful for those times in which pain gets in the way of valued activities or you respond to it in a way that is impacting on your relationships. Seek out an ACT therapist or ACT self-help book on managing chronic pain.

Most of us would choose to be pain-free. When we must live with pain, the next best option is to find a way to develop a peaceful relationship with your pain.