Being neither religious nor spiritual, I may appear an unlikely person to write about the role of spirituality and religion in coping with migraine. However, techniques based on the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness have reliably been the most effective, helpful coping strategies I’ve used in my 25 years with chronic migraine. While plenty of people approach Buddhism as a religion, I think of it more as psychology; a collection of wise insights to help people live their fullest lives.
Mindfulness is the most well-known Buddhist practice for coping with chronic illness. While it is often referred to as mindfulness meditation, mindfulness reaches far beyond focused meditation. “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience,” according to Psychology Today1.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? And mindfulness is helpful for everyone, whether you have episodic or chronic migraine, or no migraine at all.
As mindfulness becomes increasingly mainstream, the religious aspects are less prominent. In fact, a secular program based on Buddhist teachings, called mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), is taught at hospitals and medical centers around the country. MBSR applies mindfulness techniques to improve wellness both for people diagnosed with an illness or those with a high stress load.
Mindfulness for Pain Relief, a two-CD set by Jon Kabat Zinn, the creator of MBSR, is possibly the perfect way for any migraineur to learn about mindfulness: short, inexpensive, and to the point. An overview of MBSR and how it applies to pain teaches you what’s behind the technique, plus there are a number of guided practices to get you started.
For a thorough introduction to MBSR, read Full Catastrophe Living, also by Kabat Zinnm which basically covers the course content in book form. A companion workbook and CD of guided meditations are available for purchase separately for a do-it-yourself MBSR course. Whether you buy the companion CDs, use the guided meditations from Mindfulness for Pain Relief, or search the internet for free MBSR audio and/or video, listening to guided mediations will make your exploration far easier than trying to do them based on what you read in a book.
If you have chronic migraine, How to Be Sick by Toni Bernhard is a must-read (or listen to) book. Although she doesn’t have migraine, you will nod along and maybe even cry as you read her story of illness and the painful thoughts that accompany it. She explains how the Buddha’s teachings apply to the turmoil of chronic illness and shares a variety of techniques for applying the teachings in daily life. The entire book is filled with excellent information, but I particularly like the final section, which identifies specific challenges people face with chronic illness and which coping strategies are most helpful in different scenarios. Whether you’re fed up with the relentlessness of your symptoms or angry about being dismissed by a doctor or feeling lonely and isolated, there are specific practices for dealing with these and other frustrations.
When you’re ready to look into more teachings of Buddhism and mindfulness, recorded teachings from Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, and Pema Chödrön have provided me with tremendous tools for coping with migraine and the general stresses of life. I have MP3s of their audiobooks, which I listen to as I fall asleep at night. I like to think I’m absorbing some of the lessons even after I fall asleep!
Some audiobooks and podcasts I’ve found particularly helpful:
- Guided Meditations for Self-Healing, by Jack Kornfield, has taught me self-compassion, made me feel less alone in chronic illness, and helped me see myself as whole instead of broken. Guided Meditations for Difficult Times: A Lamp in the Darkness is basically the same content, so if you can’t find one, the other is a fine alternative.
- Radical Self-Acceptance, like self-compassion, self-acceptance was practically nonexistent in my life until I listened to this audiobook by Tara Brach repeatedly.
(Her newest book, True Refuge, came out in January and I haven’t listened to it yet — if you have, please share what you think.)
- Tara Brach’s (free!) podcast has been a powerful resource for me, but you either have to listen to a ton of them or dig through the archives to find the topics of particular interest to you. I listened to several years’ worth, some of them multiple times.
- In this video, Tara Brach describes how meditation helps her find peace and happiness in her life despite a genetic illness that limits her mobility. Although Brach doesn’t talk about her illness much, many of her are lessons highly applicable to chronic illness.
- Pema Chödrön is a funny, practical Buddhist nun who grew up in the United States. She regularly acknowledges the difficulties of meditation, which I find endearing as well as reassuring. How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind is an easily approachableintroduction to meditation.
- Awakening Compassion: Meditation Practice for Difficult Times has helpful lessons for coping with illness. Many of Chödrön’s books and CDs are available at libraries — I check them out to find which ones best address what I’m dealing with, then buy those.
This post is in response to Migraine and Headache Awareness Month Blog Challenge #23, “Bruce Almighty: How does spirituality and/or religion help you cope?”
Learn more about the 2013 MHAM Blog Challenge and other MHAM events by visiting: 2013 Migraine & Headache Awareness Month Information Page
June, Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, is dedicated to Unmasking the Mystery of Chronic Headache Disorders. The Migraine and Headache Awareness Month Blog Challenge is issued by FightingHeadacheDisorders.com