The Connection Between Depression and Headaches

Dealing With Depression and Headaches

Dealing With Depression and HeadachesDepression is synonymous with lower moods, poor sleep, poor diet, lower energy, lower motivation and feelings of hopelessness. These symptoms of depression are often talked about, but depression also brings with it a range of somatic issues. Somatic issues are symptoms felt in your body. They are often experienced as pain, numbness or tingling.

Despite misconceptions, psychosomatic symptoms are not fake or imaginary. The source of the discomfort is psychological rather than physical, but these are real feelings of real pain.

Can Depression Cause Headaches?

The relationship between depression and headaches is bidirectional, meaning that more headaches trigger increased depression, and increased depression triggers more headaches. Studies show that people with major depression are 40 percent more likely to experience migraine and frequent headaches. Additionally, people with migraine are 80 percent more likely to have major depression.

This relationship poses a challenge to the sufferer and the treatment provider since both depression and migraine must be addressed concurrently. If treatment only targets one, the chance of both improving is smaller.

Medication Options

Many of the top treatment options begin with an effective medication regimen. Identifying and understanding the comorbidity of depression and headaches/migraines is essential to finding the best treatment. Some medication options include:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) – These are some of the most commonly used antidepressant drugs.  SSRIs work by flooding your brain with more serotonin which typically improves symptoms of depression.  Oddly, when depression is accompanied by headaches, these medications are less effective.
  • Serotonin Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs) – This is another group of antidepressants that work to add norepinephrine as well as serotonin into your brain. As with SSRIs, SNRIs have poor results in patients with depression and headaches.
  • Tricyclics – For the best results for people with depression and migraine/headaches, you have to look back to 50-year-old medications. The tricyclics are an older generation of antidepressants. Symptoms tend to respond at a quicker rate and at lower doses than with other medications.  Tricyclics are generic medications so some prescribers may lack knowledge of them and their efficacy.
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs) This is another older type of medication that is no longer prescribed at a high rate. Low usage is mostly due to higher risks of side effects, but for patients that are knowledgeable and careful with their treatment; these may be a good option.

Others Options to Help Cope With Depression and Headaches

If medications are already in place, or you find little success with medications, trying another set of treatment choices could be a good fit. Here are some awesome options that will manage depression and migraine simultaneously:


You already know that therapy is an obvious choice for depression, but experts now recommend that migraine patients seek screening for mental health conditions. A therapist can help you monitor your symptoms and develop effective coping skills. Therapy can also help you understand how your thoughts and feelings affect migraines and your depression. With this information, you can change your response to the pain.

As always, having realistic expectations going into therapy is important. Therapy will not end migraines but it can improve your symptoms and overall well-being. Studies have shown cognitive behavioral therapy works best in conjunction with the interventions below.


In biofeedback, you are connected to equipment that monitors your physical state. The health care professional teaches you how to recognize and modify your response including heart rate, muscle tension, and breathing pace. Researchers have found that this technique lowers migraine frequency.


Finding a relaxation technique or a series of techniques that works for you can provide great benefit for depression and anxiety. Relaxation can help prevent migraines by lowering your overall stress.

Migraine patients also report that relaxation, along with a cold compress, reduces the intensity and duration of attacks. Deep breathing, guided imagery, autogenic training and progressive muscle relaxation are some of the most useful techniques. Experiment to find the one that works best for you depending on your symptoms.

Next page: More ways to cope with depression and headaches, and how to enjoy your headache- and depression-free days.

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