Simple Solution for Stress Headaches

Rebekah F. Owens

Tension or stress-related headaches are a common plague in today’s society. As a massage therapist, I see many clients who come in complaining of these types of headaches – and it’s no wonder. Upon looking at the client, the first thing I notice is that their shoulders are usually elevated (or “up around their ears”). Since our body is always trying to protect itself, it is only natural that this would happen – the shoulders elevate to protect the neck, which is a core part of the body. In other words, if your neck broke, you would be paralyzed, so the body subconsciously protects it. When the shoulders are elevated, the trapezius muscles in the upper back shorten, pulling on the base of the skull. This pulling is usually the main cause of the headaches.

Posterior View of Upper Body

Fortunately, there are several simple tricks to help alleviate this pain that you can do on yourself:

1.) DROP those shoulders. Sit or stand straight and lower your shoulders down and back. There may be a little pain at first, because the muscles need to get longer again, but the pain is only temporary and will be alleviated by the next tricks.

2.) RUB those shoulders. Take your whole hand and squeeze, knead, and rub your shoulders and upper back, as far as you can reach. It is usually easiest to do one side at a time by reaching across with the opposite hand and rubbing. Five minutes is usually good amount of time. Try to use the palm of your hand as much as possible, so you don’t tired out your fingers.

3.) PRESS the occiput. Your “occiput” is the little notch at the base of your skull. It is at the center of where several muscles connect and therefore can get very tired. If you press your thumb in there and rub around in a small circle for a few minutes, it helps those muscles to release.

4.) MASSAGE the base of your skull. Since this is a major attachment point for many muscles, it is a great place to start massaging. Use your fingertips, the palm of your hands, and the heel of your hands in slow circular motions. This will cause the attachments to loosen, and will reduce the pulling on your skull and scalp.

5.) MASSAGE your scalp. Let your hair down and take your fingertips for a trip around your scalp. Really get in there and move the muscles of your scalp around. Pull your hair a little bit (be gentle, please) and release. Again circular motions with your palms or fingertips work best.

These simple tricks will help your stress or tension headache to release by getting to the root of the problem – those pesky muscles. When you have time, you should also go for a relaxing massage and have the therapist work on your entire back, as well as your scalp, neck, and upper pecs, which are all connected to your problem area. The combination of self-massage, good posture, and a professional massage will keep your headaches at bay.


[Beka Frizzelle-Owens, LMT, NCTMB has been a massage therapist since 2004. In her practice, she integrates traditional massage healing techniques with a relaxing atmosphere to create a holistic and effective style sure to help almost any client. She works with all age groups and is a Certified Infant Massage Instructor. Beka works full-time as a coordinator for the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Integrative Medicine and part-time as a massage therapist in Severna Park, MD. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Allied Health from Towson University and is working on her Master’s in Applied Sociology at UMBC.]
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