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Research carried out by the International Headache Society found that tension headaches are the most common type of headaches.
These types of headaches are known as primary headaches, as they are not caused by disease or medical conditions. They can last for just a few moments, or for several weeks in some cases.
Symptoms of a tension headache:
>> Occurs without warning.
>> The pain can be described as a tight band of tension around the head, usually occurring on both sides of the head and often in the forehead, the back of the head and neck, or both areas.
>> The pain is steady, and the intensity feels mild to moderate, rather than a throbbing or pulsating.
>> There is no nausea or vomiting.
>> Routine physical activity does not worsen the pain. (For instance, climbing stairs or walking.)
**Please note that these are the typical symptoms, but might not apply to everyone with tension headaches.
One way to combat tension headaches is to regularly practice relaxation techniques to reduce muscle tension.
It is believed that headaches are triggered by a variety of physiological and psychological causes, and some of the most common causes of tension headaches are thought to be fatigue, depression, anxiety, or stress.
Whenever I am feeling overwhelmed and notice the first pangs of a headache developing, I take time out to practice a simple meditation.
However, I don’t just rely on meditation to fight a headache once it has already arrived. I also set aside a small amount of time each morning to balance, ground, protect, and re-energize myself in one practice, so that I am emotionally, mentally, and physically prepared for whatever the day might deliver.
This means I rarely experience headaches—and when I do, they are combated quickly, easily, and are far less painful than they were prior to practicing meditation daily.
When I am struggling for time—or I am somewhere that meditation is not feasible, or if I am not feeling up to a full meditation—I simply inhale and exhale to a set number of breaths.
Sometimes going too far inward when we are already overwhelmed or exhausted can feel too intense and intrusive. In these times, we can focus on nothing other than the sensation of our rib-cage rising and falling as we breathe, to soothe, rebalance, and rejuvenate ourselves when we need these things most.
Meditation is a time for deep relaxation so that we have the opportunity to calm any irrational fears and alleviate any painful areas of contention in the body and mind.
For many, meditation is an enjoyable experience—one that leaves us refreshed and revitalized, not frustrated or feeling inadequate if we haven’t achieved unrealistic standards we set for ourselves. A practice with very little expectation or attachment to the outcome is all that is needed.
Regardless of how busy our minds are, even if we only gain a few moments of peace, the practice will have been worthwhile.
Here is a simple meditation that I practice each morning and night.
To begin, the most important thing is to feel completely comfortable. If low lighting is preferable, turn the lights down low. Set the room temperature to a comfortable level; when the body is too cold, it will feel tense, and it then becomes far more difficult to fully relax. Gentle music can be played in the background to provide a more serene environment.
We can then move into whatever position feels most comfortable to meditate in.
Position. Lying on your back, place both arms out by either side with palms of the hands facing upward. Legs are fully stretched out, and the feet are hip-width apart.
Scan the body from top to toe and notice how each part feels. Keep adjusting slightly if needed, until feeling fully comfortable. If this position is not comfortable, move to a supported chair and relax into it.
Gently squeeze and then release each area of the body, starting with the toes, and then work all the way up, eventually focusing on each part of the head. Eyes, mouth, and cheeks are all areas that can become tense and may sometimes be forgotten. Relax deep into the surface the body is resting on, and let it take the full weight of your torso, head, and limbs.
After a few moments, move attention back to the head area. Gently focus on where the pain appears to be radiating from. When you find an area that feels particularly tense, focus on softening and releasing the tension from that area by imagining the tension flowing away from the body. Inhale and then exhale deeply to support the tension releasing.
Mindful breathing. Pay attention to your breathing pattern. Notice how the body and organs feel when each breath is taken. Focus on the lungs filling and then emptying, along with all other associated sensations. Feel the air move through the nostrils with each deep inhale and exhale.
If my mind is busy, I count each breath as a way of keeping the concentration solely focused on breathing and diverted from what might be passing through my mind.
Feel the sense of stillness wash over the body as the mind enters a place of calm and tranquility. The entire body will be entering into a deep sense of relaxation, and then it will move slowly into a meditative state.
Thoughts. One of the biggest myths people believe about meditation is that they have to completely release everything that is in the mind. A calm state of mind will come naturally and does not need to be forced.
Allow each thought to enter the mind, pay attention to it for a short period, and then let it go. Try not to attach any emotions to your thinking—just recognize whatever is floating around, and then let it go.
To prevent the mind from wandering, keep your attention focused on breathing.
Visualize. Visualize a calming, peaceful scene to alleviate unpleasant thoughts. Focusing on a color, a sunset, a favorite object, or any positive image will bring a greater sense of calm. Hold the picture in your mind while breathing deeply to allow a gentle flow into a deep meditation.
Lie still and allow the body and mind to feel all the sensations taking place. Try not to rush any part of this process. Just let the meditation naturally progress.
Meditation releases the physical tension in my body, calms my mind, and encourages me to slow down. Not only that, through introspection I am also able to figure out the underlying causes of my stress or anxiety, so I am left feeling physically relaxed, as well emotionally and mentally relaxed as I have unearthed the resolve to many of my problems.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University encourages meditating to trigger the “relaxation response” in the body. His studies found meditation increases the activity in part of the nervous system that slows the heart rate down, relaxes blood vessels, and inhibits the areas responsible for stress, thus promoting relaxation and peacefulness.
Further research carried out by Herbert Benson and others found that through regular meditation, we can reduce the frequency of headaches considerably—and in some cases, headaches can be eliminated.
The research also concluded that meditation and mindfulness lower the stress-related hormone cortisol, and that volunteers who participated in the study—which included meditation, mindfulness, and yoga—used medical services 43 percent less than they did the previous year.
Mindfulness is, quite simply, being in the present moment and being aware of our thoughts and actions in a nonjudgmental way. By refraining from dwelling on any past or future thoughts, we can remain in the here and now. We will then be concentrating fully on whatever we are doing in the current moment, without the mind frantically jumping back and forth.
Meditation and mindfulness take regular practice, like anything—but the more we engage, the more natural it becomes, and the more harmonious, healthy, and healed we’ll feel.
Author: Alex Myles
Image: Unsplash/Ayo Ogunseinde
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Copy editor: Danielle Beutell
Social editor: Callie Rushton