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“Migraine Brain” Part II – working memory deficits

In Treating "Migraine Brain" , I introduced the idea of using mental health strategies to compensate for memory and focus problems brought on by migraine. This can be accomplished by identifying your Executive Skills challenge areas and then developing strategies to improve these skills or compensate for the deficits. I promised I would share some of these strategies with you in future posts.

One of the more common complaints I hear from migraineurs is that they experience word loss or lose their train of thought. These problems are a sign that a person’s working memory is not functioning properly.  Lots of things can disrupt our working memory –- stress, anxiety, worry, having too many things to do, experiencing pain, getting sick – all can slow down our ability to think clearly and express ourselves.

Working memory is a lot like RAM in a computer. RAM stores information needed to perform tasks using software that is already opened. Not everything that is stored on a computer’s hard drive is accessible in RAM. Sometimes there are too many processes running at once and a computer’s RAM will not be able to respond quickly. The computer slows down and becomes unresponsive to commands. To correct this problem, you need to close some programs and allow the RAM to catch up. Sometimes you have to completely shut down the computer and start over. Occasionally that means you lose some of the data you were working with.

Migraines can do the same thing to working memory. All that pain, nausea, and other symptoms slow down our thinking. We can lose information we were trying to remember because our working memory is too busy trying to process all the input from migraine itself. We will forget to make that phone call, keep that appointment, or freeze in the middle of a sentence because our mind goes blank. Just like a computer, sometimes we have to shut down (sleep) in order to get our brains functioning properly again.

So what can we do about it? As long as we keep getting attacks, we won’t ever be able to keep it from happening. What we need are external “crutches” to do for us what our working memory cannot do.

  1. Keep all your notes and reminders in one place. It can be a notebook, planner, software, or electronic device. Avoid using paper scraps or post-it notes that can be easily misplaced. I have recently started using Microsoft OneNote to help with this challenge.
  2. Maintain a current calendar with email and/or text reminders. Most cell phones can sync to your electronic calendar (Outlook, Google, etc.) and send reminders.
  3. Ask a trusted person to remind you of important tasks, appointments, and events.
  4. Keep a revolving task list that helps remind you of all the things you might forget.
  5. Maintain an up-to-date contact list so you don’t have to remember phone numbers, addresses, and email addresses.
  6. Talk to your family and friends about this challenge. Explain word loss and ask for their patience, understanding, and help.

Learning to use these strategies effectively will take time. You will experience a lot of trial and error before you find just the right solution. Some people prefer high tech solutions while others do better with “old school” options. Anything is great as long as it works for you.

Can you think of any other ways you can compensate for poor working memory during a migraine attack? What strategies have you discovered?

Upcoming features:

  • Organization
  • Task completion skills
  • Emotional skills
  • Self-reflection skills

Read Part 3 in the "Migraine Brain" series - Catching up after an attack

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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.

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