How Happiness Helps Your Headaches

How Being Optimistic May Help Your Headaches
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Do you suffer from headaches, but find that smiling or pondering the silver lining helps to dull the pain? On the contrary, do you find that negative thoughts, such as: "I am now going to miss more work, and this will prevent me from getting that promotion," exacerbate or contribute to your pain? If you answered yes to one or both of these questions, you are not alone. Numerous studies have shown that positive and negative thinking impact the way people perceive pain.

Are Headaches "In Your Head?"

No. The variety of headache types described on this site are very real medical conditions that plague millions of people worldwide. To be clear, the notion that a positive disposition or attitude may lessen head pain does not mean that a headache is psychologically based. Unfortunately, some of you may have experienced having loved ones or friend comment that your migraines or headaches, "are in your head." While you may be frustrated by these types of comments, be reassured that your headache is real and certainly not a figment of your imagination. Instead, use the opportunity to educate your loved one or friend, as their negative reaction to your headache is likely an expression of their own frustration over not being able to help you.

Pain and Positivity

There are multiple studies that support how a positive personality can alter a person's perception of both acute and chronic pain.

What has typically been found is that higher levels of optimism are associated with decreased pain severity and lower reports of pain and pain-related activity limitations.

The precise link between how a positive personality can mitigate a patient's pain response is unclear. One study in The Journal of Pain suggests that individuals with an optimistic disposition have less pain catastrophizing, and this leads to a lesser perception of a pain response.

Catastrophizing is when an individual perceives a situation as being far worse than it is.

How Can "Positivity" be Used To Treat Headaches?

Unfortunately, there are no studies examining the effects of positive thinking specifically on headaches. However, one study in The Clinical Journal of Pain did find that a technique called mindfulness-based-cognitive-therapy, or MBCT, is an acceptable and possibly effective intervention for treating headache pain. MBCT, which is traditionally used to treat psychiatric disorders, especially depression, combines the practice of "mindfulness" with traditional cognitive therapy. Mindfulness encompasses being calmly aware of one's emotions and living in the present moment. In this intervention, negative thoughts are let go of or released to avoid exacerbating or feeding the underlying condition, like depression, or in this case, head pain.

While larger studies are certainly needed to further validate this treatment modality, it is always exciting to explore novel, alternative means of treating headaches and migraines.

A randomized study by the University of Alabama, which is examining the effectiveness of MBCT in coping with and managing chronic headache pain, is currently underway. The study is scheduled to be completed in December 2013.

Take Home Points

• Having a positive personality has been shown to alter the way people perceive pain.

• The link between optimism and pain perception is unclear but may have to do with pain catastrophizing.

• MBCT or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy is an alternative treatment that is currently being examined in the management of chronic headache pain.


Day MA, Thorn BE, Ward LC, Rubin N, Hickman SD, Scogin F, Kilgo GR. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for the Treatment of Headache Pain: A Pilot Study. Clin J Pain. 2013 Feb 26. [Epub ahead of print].

Geers AL, Wellman JA, Fowler SL, Helfer SG, France CR. Dispositional optimism predicts placebo analgesia. J Pain. 2010;11:1165–71.

Goodin BR, Glover TL, Sotolongo A, King CD, Sibille KT, Herbert MS, et al. The Association of Greater Dispositional Optimism With Less Endogenous Pain Facilitation is Indirectly Transmitted Through Lower Levels of Pain Catastophizing. J Pain. 2013 Feb;14(2):126-35.

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