Handspring Health
November 3, 2022
October 30, 2023

The Link Between Anxiety and Children's Headaches: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

A sudden, throbbing headache can be a frightening experience—especially for kids, who are less familiar with all the random aches and pains of inhabiting a body. When your kid is nervous about something, that anxiety can manifest in a number of physical ways, even if they don’t realize they’re stressed. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. In addition to being debilitating, if you don’t address the root of the anxiety they can continue and intensify.

A sudden, throbbing headache can be a frightening experience—especially for kids, who are less familiar with all the random aches and pains of inhabiting a body. 

When your kid is nervous about something, that anxiety can manifest in a number of physical ways, even if they don’t realize they’re stressed. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of anxiety. In addition to being debilitating, if you don’t address the root of the anxiety they can continue and intensify.

What causes an anxiety headache, also sometimes known as a tension headache? What can bring relief to you and your kids? And how do you know if it’s time to seek medical advice? Understanding these painful headaches is a crucial step toward successful headache management and prevention. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is an Anxiety Headache?

As the name might suggest, anxiety headaches are closely linked to anxiety and stress. While the medical literature doesn’t formally classify these pains as a distinct category of headache, they are a very real and disruptive phenomenon for many—including children. 

These headaches are far more common than you might think, and they’re likely becoming more frequent and widespread. Globally, instances of anxiety disorders increased 25% in 2020, particularly among women and kids. And statistically, those with generalized anxiety disorder are significantly more likely to have all kinds of primary headaches—when a headache itself is the main symptom—from migraines to tension headaches. For some types of headaches, like migraines, it’s not certain whether anxiety causes the migraines or constant migraines cause anxiety—but either way, the two appear correlated. 

Types of Anxiety Headaches

Understanding which type of anxiety headache your child is experiencing is essential for proper diagnosis and treatment. For instance, a tension headache may respond to over-the-counter pain meds or meditation; a migraine may require prescription medication.

Below are the different types of headaches your kid might experience. 

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches. The “tension” in the name doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re caused by stress—although they often are. Instead, tension refers to the vise-like feeling of a tight rubber band around the head. Some researchers suggest a correlation between serotonin and tension headaches, especially in people with anxiety. 


Migraines are severe, debilitating headaches. They may be accompanied by nausea or sensitivity to light and noise. One study found that people with migraines are four times more likely to have anxiety than people who don’t get migraines—although it is still not clear whether anxiety leads to migraines or vice versa or some combination of the two. 

TMJ headaches

These headaches occur along the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), which spreads from your jaw to your ears. TMJ headaches are often caused by clenching your teeth or grinding—which are also symptoms of anxiety. Over time, clenching or grinding can develop into a disorder called TMD, or temporomandibular disorder, which is hallmarked by chronic jaw pain and dysfunction. One study found that stress was the most common cause of TMD.

Cluster headaches

These excruciating headaches are, thankfully, fairly rare, occurring in approximately 0.1% of the population, or one in every thousand people. Cluster headaches can occur up to eight times a day, and last from 15 minutes to three hours. Studies show 47.5% of people who experience cluster headaches have anxious personality traits, though here too the exact nature of the relationship between headaches and anxiety is unclear. 

What Does an Anxiety Headache Feel Like?

There are distinct differences between headache types. A tension headache involves pain in a band wrapping the temples and forehead, and a cluster headache tends to be fixed behind the eyes. A migraine may involve throbbing pain all over the head. 

However, despite this variance, here are some common symptoms your child might complain of:

  • Throbbing pain
    One of the hallmark features of an anxiety headache is a persistent, throbbing pain. This might be near a child’s ears, potentially signifying a TMJ headache, or around their forehead—a classic sign of tension headaches.
  • Muscle tension
    Tense muscles can directly contribute to the development of headaches. If your child is continuously tensing their muscles, or experiencing a tight, knotted neck and shoulders, they may be having an anxiety headache.
  • Pressure and heaviness
    Pressure and heaviness can occur both alongside or in lieu of throbbing pain. Some people describe headaches as feeling like a heavy weight is bearing down on their head. 

In addition to these physical symptoms, there are other indicators that your child may be experiencing headaches caused by anxiety. 

  • Worsening with stress
    Is your child dealing with a difficult class or social situation? Is your family experiencing stress, like the death of a loved one or a divorce? Headaches that occur concurrently with a stressful situation are more likely to be caused by anxiety.
  • Accompanied by fatigue and irritability
    Understandably, anxiety can make your child more irritable and difficult. If they complain of headaches and are also grumpy and testy, those headaches may be caused  by anxiety.

How to Help Anxiety Headaches

Anything that can reduce your child’s anxiety may help reduce their headaches, too. If you suspect your kid is dealing with an anxiety headache, consult a licensed mental health professional. Evidence-based techniques like cognitive-behavioral therapy offer insight and coping mechanisms to help your child deal with stress. If the anxiety is particularly severe, your therapist may refer you to your pediatrician or a psychiatrist for medication.

Because anxiety headaches are rooted in stress and tension, relaxation techniques like meditation can help alleviate pain and prevent future recurrence. The techniques below can benefit everyone, so feel free to work through these anxiety-relieving exercises alongside your child.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing techniques can help you and your child relieve stress and muscle tension.. First it’s important to take a few moments and focus on your breath. One common strategy is called “box breathing,” which involves the following steps:

  1. Breathe in through your nose, counting to four.
  2. Hold your breath for four seconds.
  3. Breathe out slowly through your mouth to the count of four.
  4. Hold your breath again for four seconds.

You can repeat this sequence until your child feels calmer.


Meditation is a fantastic way to help your child calm their mind and reduce overall stress. A regular meditation practice can also help your child build resilience, so their anxiety is less likely to trigger painful headaches. 

First, find a quiet space. Sit comfortably and concentrate on breathing to get started. If you or your child are new to meditation, there are a number of apps  that offer meditation for kids and can introduce you to the key concepts. 


Yoga adds physical movement to meditation, making it a fantastic and more comprehensive approach to anxiety management and headache reduction. Practicing yoga can reduce your child’s muscle tension and reduce stress—it can be a fun alternative to traditional meditation for antsy kids. YouTube offers a number of great yoga for kids videos, or you can sign up for a parent and child in-person class. 

Can Anxiety Headaches Indicate an Underlying Medical Condition?

Headaches can be associated with a number of medical conditions. Some headaches also have no clear cause, but can be treated successfully with medication. 

If your child continues to suffer from headaches after treating their anxiety, it may be worth consulting your child’s pediatrician to identify any other contributing factors, which might include:

  • Skipping meals or disordered eating
  • Dehydration
  • Ear infections
  • Concussions
  • Sinus inflammation
  • High blood pressure

Unexplained headaches can be scary or painful, but if your child is dealing with anxiety headaches, first focus on alleviating the stress that may contribute to the physical pain. If the headaches continue, consider consulting with your child’s pediatrician. Frequent headaches can have a huge impact on your child’s mental health and wellbeing—but there are solutions for both the pain and the stress.

If you need further support or assistance in helping a child who is experiencing headaches related to anxiety or stress, don’t hesitate to reach out for a free consultation from a licensed Handspring Health therapist today. 

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