Headaches, let alone migraines can make or break a good day and for those dealing with them on a weekly or even daily basis they can be debilitating. So how exactly is mindfulness, the quality of being aware without judgment, going to help with headaches? Well to answer that question let's take a second and think about what are some of the causes of headaches. According to clinics like the Mayo and Cleveland clinic; headaches are summarized as pain signals that result from interactions amongst the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves. But, the mechanism that activates these specific nerves to send pain signals is unknown. Okay... so we know it's related to nerves and blood vessels, but we are unsure of how it all functions. Let's make a speculative argument then for how mindfulness helps if direct mechanisms aren't fully known.
Parasympathetic nervous system and its role in the stress response
Let's start with how the nervous system is divided, there are two main divisions one of them is the central nervous system and the other is the autonomic nervous system. Think moving limbs or talking as what the central nervous system does and all the automatic actions like breathing, digesting food, or your heart beating as the roles the autonomic system is involved in.
Now within the autonomic nervous system there are two further subdivisions the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic is also known as the flight or fight system which helps activate the body to respond to stress; and the parasympathetic is known as the rest and digest which helps relax and calm the body. Both of these systems when working in unison create an optimal sustainable environment within the body.
When in balance the body can respond to stressors then bring stress/tension back down to a sustainable level. However, if either system is overly activated; anxiety, panic, and fainting can occur. Now imagine always being stressed without breaks or time for the body to reset, this is where headaches can begin.
The parasympathetic nervous system not only regulates stress it also communicates with the brain via a nerve called the vagus nerve. This nerve serves as a way for your parasympathetic nervous system to tell your brain to calm down the stress response, speeding up the process of regulating stress.
How again is learning about the parasympathetic nervous system relevant to helping with Headaches?
Mindfulness is just that, a technique to help balance the autonomic nervous system using the parasympathetic system. Okay so if I say meditation what's the first thing that comes to mind? Probably someone with their legs crossed, eyes closed, in an unachievable nirvana like state? Meditation can look like that; but meditation is simply focusing one's attention on one thing for an extended period of time. When I say an extended period, I mean seconds to start, then with time, holding focus for minutes. For the majority of people, being in a zen like state for hours is not practical or realistic, and so for most I find 5-10 min practice sessions a few times a day work wonders.
At home, practice can look like walking in the evening without music or distractions just enjoying nature, to breathing exercises like paced breathing or body scans, it can also be watching a comedy special with the intention of focusing and staying present with the activity at hand. Ideally focused exercises like paced breathing will generate a more robust parasympathetic response but in essence the point is to signal to the nervous system that one is safe and in no danger. When safety is established most people will begin to notice their heart rate slowing down, the mind won't race, and the body relaxes. So to bring this full circle if headaches are pain signals that result from interactions amongst the brain, blood vessels, and surrounding nerves; then the roles that mindfulness plays is to balance the nervous system, lessening the intensity of the stress response by signaling that one is safe and doesn't need to be on high alert constantly.
Mindfulness is a daily practice
So how does one see if mindfulness could be useful for them? Well like any new practice, start small. Right after one wakes up, take 10 seconds to 15 seconds thinking about your day and how you would like the day to go. Once the practice of envisioning how you would like your day to go becomes incorporated into your daily practice; start practicing something like a body scan once daily to get better acquainted with your body. Body scans can help address muscle tension by becoming aware of where one holds tension in the body. If you don't know if there is a problem how will one ever be able to address said problem? Remember as you are practicing mindfulness, build awareness not judgements. If you have any further questions about mindfulness or how it might help with your concerns, like headaches, please don't hesitate to reach out via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ivan Quintero ND, BCB
Ivan Quintero is a naturopathic doctor that is board certified in biofeedback.