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Hope breaks the cycle of helplessness

It isn’t unusual for migraine patients to feel out of control, especially in the middle of a prolonged and painful migraine attack. Multiply that by decades of unrelenting pain and you have a formula for feeling powerless to change. Even if there are ways to improve the situation, it can be nearly impossible to recognize them and even more difficult to implement those changes. After all, if nothing has worked so far, why should we expect anything new to work?

This situation is what mental health experts call “learned helplessness”. It happens when a person continuously experiences negative, unpleasant situations which they are unable to change. Over time, the person comes to believe that there is no escape. It is quite understandable how this can happen. In terms of migraine, learned helplessness can occur when we encounter doctor after doctor who is unable to help or gives up on us. When several doctors tell us that there’s nothing left to try, we start to believe this might really be true. The danger with learned helplessness is that it destroys hope.

Without hope, we stop looking for better ways to manage migraine. We give up. We may stop trying, but migraine continues to get stronger. The more attacks we experience, the more attacks we are likely to have in the future. This is one condition that can definitely get worse over time if not treated properly. The challenge we face is that so few health care providers even know how to accurately diagnose migraine, let alone treat it properly.

If you are one of the millions of migraine patients who have given up trying to get relief from migraine attacks, I want you to know how much my heart aches for the pain you must be feeling. I wish that I could magically transport you to one of the really great headache specialists. I wish that your insurance company would cover your needed treatments. And I wish that there was an unlimited scholarship fund to help you cover the costs of travel and missing work to see one of the best headache doctors in the country.

It is nice to dream, but wishing won’t make these things come true. I won’t pretend that there aren’t huge obstacles keeping you from getting the care and treatment you need and deserve. Just thinking about the barriers to good care can trigger a migraine!

It takes a great deal of courage to start fighting again. In the beginning it can feel so useless, like you are wasting precious time and money searching for the one thing that doesn’t really exist. You might get resistance from friends and loved ones, too. There are going to be days when you think it would be better to give up. You will need to remember that migraine isn’t going to quit just because you surrender. It will keep coming, over and over, increasing its attacks. Your best hope is to keep searching.

Here are a few places to get started:

American Headache Society – Find a Healthcare Professional
Migraine Research Foundation Directory of Diplomates in Headache Medicine
Migraine Research Foundation Directory of Children’s Headache Doctors
United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties – Diplomates in Headache Medicine

If you’re stuck or need help brainstorming ideas, please reach out to me or one of our other Patient Advocates. We are all in various stages of migraine treatment, too. We understand how frustrating it can be when nothing seems to work. What’s different about us is that we’re still fighting. Most of us have developed working relationships with some great headache doctors. Even if we don’t live near you, we might still be able to point you in the right direction. If nothing else, you will have a team of migraine friends to cheer you on and a several sets of shoulders to cry on.

We haven’t given up on you. Please don’t give up on yourself.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Pat63
    4 years ago

    Thank you for this post. It gives one who is in the depths of dispair and almost constant pain from various conditions hope, realizing that the light at the end of the tunnel may very well not be an on coming train. I’ve had migraines since I was 17 (I’m now 52) so you’d think I’d be pretty well adjusted to them by now. Well wrong. Once I finally found a doctor who was understanding and wonderful he had the audacity to retire ( lol) (I really did adore him.). Well I may have found another Dr. but time will tell. Anyway, your post helped open my eyes and lift a self imposed weight. Thank you again.

  • Aimee
    4 years ago

    I’ve had chronic migraines all my life. At 23, I take a plethera of medications. I have a wonderful neurologist who specializes in migraines, and has them as well. While she has been wonderful, it seems like nothing is working long term. I am currently sitting at 3 migraines in a week, or one that lasts three days. I am now trying new medications, upping the ones I am on, and trying botox. I am in school, so this is very overwhelming. After years of trying to find something (my migraines started in high school, possibly earlier) its hard not to give up.

  • BethBlue
    4 years ago

    I can’t do it without my family, and their support has been rapidly eroding all year long. They have been my hope; now it’s fading.

  • Leynal
    4 years ago

    Thanks for this article. I think the phrase “learned helplessness” might really hit home for me. I speak to my therapist often about my frustration with doctors giving up on me, or just giving me painkillers and sending me on my way. Nothing is going to change, there is no strategy to move towards progress. And what does that do to one’s self worth? When their reality every day is pain, ice packs, closed curtains, and canceled plans?
    Chronic migraineurs suffer from depression because our lives are completely robbed by this disease. Maybe it’s just me but I know it’s a daily struggle to find inspiration, motivation and hope. And we aren’t allowed to say this because there always has to be something positive, or a silver lining. If we can’t admit this to each other than who can we?

  • Sara
    4 years ago

    BELIEVE. Believe that you can get better and fight like heck for it. Fight your insurance company, and ask for referrals to the BEST doctors you can get yourself to. I was hopeless too. I am currently inpatient at the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute (MHNI). I had to stand up to my local doctors and my family and my insurance company to show that this is what I need, and you can do it too. I have had several blocks (deep and superficial) and have a new medication regimen. Although I currently have a spinal headache from an LP and am waiting on a blood patch, my intractable migraine pain has eased significantly, and my neurological symptoms are far less present. I am hopeful again. I am fighting.

  • Sara
    4 years ago

    Thanks Livvy! An LP is a lumbar puncture or spinal tap, one of the tests that was completed here at MHNI to determine whether spinal fluid pressure plays a part in my headaches.

  • Livvy
    4 years ago

    Hi Sara,
    I think that’s so inspiring that you fought the bureaucracy and mindsets of those people and companies. Please could you tell me what an LP is and please forgive my ignorance. I’m so glad and inspired that you are making such improvements. ♥

  • wdjbaxter
    4 years ago

    Easier said than done. After spending an entire day lying on a floor wishing for a power drill to drill a hole in your head just relieve some pressure!!! It is really hard to have hope that they will ever find a way to help with your pain.

  • Luna
    4 years ago
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