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Meeting Myself Where I Am: Migraines & Mindfulness

A lot of people who meet me wonder how in the world I can face day after day of fairly unrelenting pain and other nasty migraine symptoms. I’m not going to say it’s easy, but I will tell you that in the eight years I’ve been living with chronic migraines I’ve developed some really effective coping skills that get me through most of the bad times.

My biggest obstacle in living well with migraine was always acceptance. The idea that everything was outside my control and terribly unfair clouded all my thinking. I always thought of myself as so together and successful, not realizing that in addition to hard work a lot of life is largely outside our control. Instead of feeling on top of things I felt weak and victimized by my body’s failures. That all started to change when I got serious about mindfulness meditation.

A couple years into my chronic migraine journey I started seeing a doctor of Chinese medicine who performed acupuncture on me. The acupuncture worked great to abort attacks, but unfortunately didn’t help prevent them. But working with her exposed me to an entirely new way of thinking about my illness and relating to it. She recommended a resource I still refer back to all the time, Break Through Pain by Shinzen Young. Break Through Pain is a book and audio CD combination that teaches you about using mindfulness to cope with pain. At first it was impossibly difficult. It seemed counterintuitive to focus on my pain the way he asked me to on the CD. I thought it was better to distract myself and just ignore it. But somehow in the process of breathing through it I began to notice I was becoming more accepting of my pain and not resisting as much as I once did. I slowly began to feel free. By giving myself permission to stop trying to control everything I became more and more at peace with my circumstances.

Along my journey with mindfulness I’ve explored Pema Chodron’s work and learned a great deal through her teaching (I especially like Don’t Bite the Hook, an audio CD of one of her talks). I’ve also relied on work by Jon Kabbat-Zinn, who developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). His book Full Catastrophe Living is like the Bible of MBSR. A wonderful woman named Toni Bernhard published a book last fall that I consider an awesome resource for people living with chronic illnesses and pain who want to explore mindfulness. Whether you’ve already had a great deal of exposure to mindfulness or are new to it, you’ll find How to Be Sick a rich source of ideas for better coping with your situation. I’ve also found the work of Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield accessible as a newbie to mindfulness meditation.

With time it has almost become second nature to stop and breathe. It sounds like such a simple thing, but it’s incredibly powerful. I’ve been able to set aside some of the “what ifs” and live more in the moment. I’ve nearly stopped obsessing about the past and times when I’ve done or said something stupid. All we have is now and even if now is painful and scary, accepting our present circumstances is a much more peaceful way to live than continuing to fight against them.

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

Comments

  • Paulaff
    6 years ago

    Thank you so much for your article. My migraines come & go (mostly come), but I have chronic daily headache which never goes away. I’ve meditated before, & found genuine peace, but I always let the meditation go & then forget to be ‘mindful’. Your article brought me back again. Thank you!

  • Pen Ort
    9 years ago

    Hi Diana, What an interesting piece, thank you. I was referred to a pain psychologist for the Fibro several years ago. He did nothing for me (although was very nice), and told me to buy Wherever You Gm there you are. (which is one of my favourite sayings). I failed dismally. I can not do it. I really wanted to grasp it. They tell me it is hard to learn but easier to do. Is there a better way you think? Because of the daily head pain, I don’t feel much like reading and my concentration is awful. But I just know it would help me. Thanks again.

  • Joanna Barker
    9 years ago

    acceptance of my chronic illness/daily headache was a tough hurdle, but has been helpful. breathing, being mindful. helps get through each day.

  • Janet
    9 years ago

    diana,
    i wish i could read. i have suffered from migraines from the age of 20. i am now 55. the migraines are back full force for the past 7 years. i am off to bed to take a treximet, 1 librium, 1 flexeril, 1 phenergan, and hope to sleep and not puke. i have tried biofeedback but was told i don’t know how to relax. i believe it. meditation is great if you can block everything other thought out of your mind and relax. i did spend 9 days at the diamond headache clinic in chicago in december 2004 where i was told i didn’t know how to relax. i am at at the end of my rope and back on topamax which again, isn’t working. i have my abortives, which as we all know you have to be careful or the awful rebound headaches come. i think i’m there again. i have gone through many doctor’s and i am at the place where i have lost hope. i have beenn on meds that have caused me to try to commit suicide so i will NEVER try antidepressent again. a call to my doc tomorrow is in order. we have a trip planned to go to ireland the end of may to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. i can’t bear the thought of being on a plane for any amount of time since i always get a migraine while flying. why can’t anybody help me?
    janet jones

  • Karen Walker Hilton
    9 years ago

    Oh Diana,

    Of all the contributors on this wonderful site, I seem to always connect more with your posts. They just ring true with me. That being said ~ THANK YOU for writing about this. I’ve been fighting chronic migraines for almost 5 years now. They began for me late in life through the discovery of a brain tumor (removed & benign). I have never heard of mindfulness meditation. I’ve attempted meditation on my own and have, on a semi-daily basis, made an attempt to use visual meditation (don’t know what else to call it) when my daily chronic pain becomes overwhelming, i.e., I picture my ‘happy place’. However, I have to admit that I truly have a very hard time going to a ‘happy place’ or trying to stay focused when I am in so much pain. I close my eyes and all I can think about is “GO AWAY..JUST FLIPPING GO AWAY! Okay Karen…focus…find the beach…find the beach….” It’s a maddening cycle as I’m sure you know.

    You said that the hardest part of living with chronic pain was acceptance. I believe that’s where I fail miserably. And where I need to start. I’m going to get the books you mentioned and give it a go. Thank you again for writing about this!

    Karen

  • Diana Lee
    9 years ago

    I want you to know you totally made my day. Thank you so much! I hope mindfulness might be useful to you in coping with this nasty disease.

  • Elaine Gross
    9 years ago

    I have practiced mindfulness meditation for years but have not since having chronic migraines because I thought it would be overwhelming to be so present with the pain and suffering. Then again I’ve been reluctant to take pain medications. You have inspired me to renew my practice. You’ve reminded me that noticing the pain separates me from “being” the pain. Rather noticing that it changes – worsens, lessens, where the pain is — all in a detached, but present way. Thank you for re-minding me.

  • Diana Lee
    9 years ago

    I’m glad! Toni Bernhard says much the same thing in her book about moving away from mindfulness for a while after being diagnosed. I bet you’ll be able to relate to her story.

  • Benice Shaw
    9 years ago

    Thanks for the information, I will get this book and try it. Nothing to lose everything to gain.

  • Sherri Franklin
    9 years ago

    I’m a 7 yr sufferer at the age of 23. I have been wondering about meditation and will get this books.

  • Amilli Franklin
    9 years ago

    Mornin miss lady what u up 2 this mornin

  • Karen Stanley Haack
    9 years ago

    Found out Sami is allergic to most fruits and vegetetables….Waiting on dairy and wheat results…..She hasn’t had a headache since we took away the fruit and vegetables. I have already stopped giving her milk. Pray for her that she will be able to eat something good.

  • Migraine.com
    9 years ago

    Diana discusses coping mechanisms that have worked for her, including mindfulness meditation.

  • Carolyn Nelson Doherty
    9 years ago

    I have a chance to go to a mindfulness class but am afraid to attend because someone will have on strong perfume or fabric softner on their clothes. Those things cause migraines for me.

  • Kelli Smith
    9 years ago

    I am taking Migravent – it is working!!!! This is the first month I have only had 5 migraines!!! Usually it is 10-20!

  • Lynn Williams
    9 years ago

    has anyone tried ” radiofrequency nerve ablation”??? if so, any luck…

  • Sherri Franklin
    9 years ago

    so so very trues kristen.

  • Judy Jones
    9 years ago

    I can control most pain with a mind over matter kind of thought, but with migraines I say give me my meds everytime! They are so bad and no ammount of time alone meditation helps them. I have MS also and can keep from taking “pain” pills until night. But with a migtaine I want it gone ASAP.

  • Tami Bernard Smithers
    9 years ago

    10-4 “GOD”

  • Tami Bernard Smithers
    9 years ago

    1980–DRUNK-DRIVER!! went through a stop sign WHEN I WAS ON MY WAY TO WORK TO ” BELMAR MUNICIPAL BUILDING” I was riding A TEN SPEED BICYCLE… no helmet! and back then POLICE DIDNT HAVE BREATHERLIZER- with them!!!!—–TIMES HAVE CHANGED!! THANK GOD!!!!

  • Tami Bernard Smithers
    9 years ago

    yes I practice!! meditation also!!

  • Kristen Davidson
    9 years ago

    migrianes = the most missunderstood disease…nobody seems to get how painfull they are..but us sufferers…

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