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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

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.


  • Sherry
    5 years ago

    I really appreciate these tips and look forward to the remaining articles. I work in a position that requires that I be able to clearly provide verbal communication. I keep written logs of what I plan to say. I am interested in any other tips for helping with word loss, as I generally could say much more but the thoughts are not quickly forthcoming.

  • Doug
    5 years ago

    If someone asks me for something, I often request that they come back and ask me again at a time that I know I can write it down in a place where I won’t lose it or at a time when I can deal with it right away. That has been my single most helpful strategy for remembering things at work and at home.

  • mmjardel
    5 years ago

    This is the most helpful article I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you

  • hswartzfager
    5 years ago

    Hey! This is Helen again. Just because I said I am a trial attorney, don’t get the wrong idea. My migraines have made me reevaluate my life & I now work from home with a wonderful husband & 11 yr. old son. I only take cases that I know I can handle with these migraines! I have & still am working my profession around my migraines. I even had migraines in law school! With s lot of FAITH, S GREAT NEUROLOGIST and a wonderful support system at home, I take it day by day. Not to mention all of my written and Evernote helperd I discussed in my previous post! Having chronic acute migraine for 25 years has been a journey, a lifestyle and most of all, it has grown my Spiritual Life more than I could have ever imagined! GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE!

  • Julie Gallagher
    5 years ago

    i have suffered with migraines for a year now, i live in the UK and get some support from my GP but hospital neuroligist was its a migraine!!! and that was it. i have lost speach and lost feeling down my left side several times. i still get my words mixed up and my brain just cant remeber the simple things. i am holding down a job but havent told them, so far been able to hide but am scared they will come in the office one day and find me on the floor, i look like i have had a stroke when i am really bad, due a check up again this week and am taking propandol which does help, really pleased i have found this website

  • hswartzfager
    5 years ago

    As a 5th generation migraine sufferer & 3rd generation trial attorney, I have finally figured out a way to keep track of all my stuff! I’ve used a Franklin-Covey Monarch sized (8 1/2 x 11) 2 pages per day planner for years! This gives me all the space in the world to plan, make appointments & make any kind of journal entries I want. If I’m having a migraine day, I write that at the top of the page, as a reminder & to explain why my handwriting is so bad! These planners also have great calendars in them w/ plenty of room to write in the date. I also carry a Moleskine Evernote notebook
    (approximately 5 x 8) w/ a pen clipped to it for quick notes anytime. When I feel better, I. put them in my big planner. Or, if you are an Evernote user, you can take a photo of your notes & they go right into your Evernote acct.! Or you can just type a note from your phone into your Evernote acct.! With these chronic acute migraines, I’ve definitely figured out some note-taking tricks! And Evernote FREE! It has helped me! If I can’t look at a phone screen, I try to write in my. planner. Oh, you can. print from Evernote, also.

  • Leslie
    5 years ago

    This is wonderful advice!! And thank you for helping me understand what’s happening to me…an issue that I’ve hard time explaining to people!!

    I use a ‘to do’ list in which I write everything that I could possibly forget…and do forget! I keep the notebook with me at all times, marking off the things I get done and adding things as I think of them. If I don’t write them down that minute, I’ll forget it….and the notebook is a great help!!!

    I’ve tried to explain my issues to my husband but I think this article will help him understand much better 🙂 Thank you for writing this and I’m looking forward to reading more advice and suggestions 🙂

    Thank you Tammy!!!

  • Tammy Rome author
    5 years ago

    It is difficult to explain this problem when we are in the middle of it. If your brain won’t work right, then you can’t use it to explain why it’s not working right. Most guys can understand the computer analogy. My husband is a migraineur and still still struggles to understand when I get word loss even though it happens to him, too. 🙂

    I’ve already written more on task completion. That article is in the cue for publication later. Next, I’ll be working on one that addresses emotional control and finish up the series with one on self-reflection. It’s been nice to use my therapist knowledge again even though I don’t practice anymore.

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