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Male figure putting shapes into head to simulate filling your head with intentional distractions

Mindful Distraction

You may have come across the joke “French people are so tough they eat pain for breakfast”. As a Francophone, I always chuckle when I see it displayed on T-shirts. In this pun, “pain” is the French word for bread, but migraineurs are more familiar with the other meaning! We each have a personal migraine journey: our first time experiencing migraine pain, our first time attempting to explain to others what we feel, and the first time that we face the dissociation from what we knew our lives to be “before the migraine.”

First encounter with the migraine storm

I was 12 years old when I experienced my first migraine episode (I call it a ‘storm’). Like most young adolescent kids, I was full of energy and eager to spend my after-school hours playing whatever sport was in fashion (often hockey, as it is the First Amendment in Canada :). But that all changed after a string of migraine storms. Within weeks, my outgoing personality changed and I became significantly more introverted. The idea of spending time outside where the sun might “shine too much,” or weather changes might worsen pain, was simply too overwhelming for me. Coping with the throbbing pain demanded all my attention.

Decades later, the sharp pain still strikes. However, over the years I have learned to co-exist with this pain, put up with its idiosyncrasies (e.g. pillow too high, pillow too low, too much food, not enough food, too much or not enough sleep, etc.), and fight back by distracting myself from the pain as much as I can. One useful method for this dissociation is immersing myself in a particular task.

The search to understand

So why do distractions help? At the age of 12, the distraction of chess became a coping mechanism and still remains my number one “distraction therapy”. How I’m able to distract myself from the excruciating pain when I am captivated by a task has always enticed my curious mind.

There are a growing number of psychological theories that explain how distraction works in the management of pain. At any given moment there is more sensory input than we can consciously process, and this defines the concept of attention. It is, therefore, necessary for our brains to have a “filtering unit” that allows some information to reach conscious attention while suppressing other input. What this means for migraineurs is that when we redirect attention to an immersive task (like chess), there is less attention available for pain.

And it’s not just that we aren’t focusing on pain, research suggests that it’s not even entering our consciousness (at least temporarily).

The science of distraction

Daniel Kahneman is a pioneer of capacity theory. The Capacity theory postulates that we have a limited pool of information processing resources and that using capacity for one stimulus limits their availability for another activity. Therefore, engaging in an attention-occupying activity such as playing chess limits available attention and prevents other information (such as nagging pain) from being processed and entering consciousness. This explains why I feel less pain or “forget about it” while I am fully and consciously immersed in an activity. In my case, the efficacy of distraction is also affected by the qualities of the distractor; in other words, not all distractions provide relief. Chess works well for me because it commands intense focus, but activities that I can do mindlessly, like washing dishes or folding laundry, don’t have the same effect (apologies to my wife!).

What about you? Do games or other immersive activities distract you from migraine pain? I’ve heard the next big thing in acute and chronic pain management is virtual reality. Just imagine yourself snorkeling in Belize or climbing Mount Everest right from the comfort of your living room! Now that would be a distraction at its finest.

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.


  • BrownT
    6 months ago

    Distraction was my best defence against my migraines for most of my working life. I had a high stress intense job and a natural ability to focus intensely for hours. It would get me through my work day. Of course when I got home the let down headache was all the more intense and the weekends were a write off.
    I still use watching TV as distracting and can not realize that I had a major migraine building. Too often the migraines get away from me and I have to play catch up to get them back under control. Even reading a book before sleeping can give me some time for the medication to work will the story can distract me.
    When all else fails and my migraine is too strong to ignore I sometimes try to play simple games on my computer to distract me waiting to the rescue meds to take affect.
    Unfortunately there are days that I cannot concentrate enough to even focus on a distraction. Then I am left rocking in bed as it seems to help with additional distraction to the pain.
    If it were not for my distracting activities I do not know that I could have functioned for all those years.
    Thanks for the post.

  • JAR
    6 months ago

    I definitely find that distraction helps me deal with chronic pain. Whenever things are completely quiet around me and there’s nothing significant to distract me, I realize just how much pain I’m in. I play a number of games on my phone which is usually with me and “helps” to keep me from noticing just how awful I feel.

  • Joleen1966
    6 months ago

    Believe it or not hearing live bands and dancing is my distraction. I get so into the music and try to phase out the pain – or put it in behind everything else. It works some times. Mostly I feel a bit better just to be out enjoying the music. Dancing is just a bonus!

  • glassmind
    6 months ago

    Thank you for the informative article.

    I use distraction techniques for acute and chronic pain for other conditions.

    However, with a migraine any activity worsens the pain, nausea, confusion, etc. All I can do is take medication and sleep.

  • Khalid Moomand moderator author
    6 months ago

    @glassmind, I can totally appreciate what you are saying and admittedly there are days that the only way to battle the storm is to resort to an abortive med and sleep it off… the challenge for me is to fall asleep when I feel like half of my face is melting 🙂

  • glassmind
    6 months ago

    Indeed. Thankfully, drowsiness is a side-effect of one of my medications. But, it is true that the migraine itself prevents sleep.

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