Expectation Overload: Working with Migraine During a Pandemic
Whew, it’s 2021. I truly can’t believe it, as last year felt like it would never ever end. The world shifted in major ways, thanks to a global pandemic that raged through communities, re-shaped institutions, changed familial boundaries, and prompted many of us to keep exceptionally clean hands...and a lot of lotion on hand. One of the most major shifts of the last year for me was learning to balance the heightened stress of working in a pandemic with chronic pain. Working with chronic pain was already an arduous, constant learning curve and with added pandemic stress, it really tested my capacity and ability to balance my health while paying my bills in an unprecedented way - are we tired of the word unprecedented yet? Ha. Reflecting on last year, I learned a lot about balancing already difficult to control chronic migraines with things happening in the world that are completely out of my control.
2020 tested stress levels
Migraine comes with it’s *own* stress. Stress of uncertainty and not knowing when you’ll lose entire days or weeks to the disease. Stress of navigating insurance providers, doctor’s offices, relationships, missed opportunities, and pain. Emotional and psychological stress. It is already a lot to deal with, and the pandemic added a heap of stress like a plate of thirds when you are already full. Work, in general, tends to also come with it’s own stress. Deadlines, pressure, and so many Zoom calls for some. Navigating the stress of the pandemic in person on the frontlines for many. It’s no small task to navigate working outside of a pandemic, without chronic pain, so when you add in both it’s a stress soup. For me, it was incredibly difficult to balance, and I had several breakdowns and several instances of seriously considering leaving work - but then there is the stress of bills and having security and safety. With unemployment growing in the United States, while I knew I was and am lucky to have a job, one that is understanding and accommodating to my comorbidities, there seemed to be no easy answer to the stress test.
I really started to see patterns arise during the summer of 2020. My migraine pain was through the roof. I felt unable to reach my healthcare providers and was terrified to go out in public. At the same time, everything in my work life shifted with things moving rapidly to a virtual world. It was like each new day was full of collective, and personal dread. After a while, I felt so sick everyday that I stopped turning on my camera, stopped speaking during Zoom meetings, stopped eating well, and just felt like I was losing control. I felt angry and bitter, disconnected, and like I was entering a shadow realm. Being in constant pain and feeling constantly worried, well, worried me. I felt as though my work performance would be under even higher scrutiny and I was really struggling.
Focusing on what I can control
One of the worst feelings associated with all of this stress was feeling like I did not have control over a single thing in my life. It took several months, but I slowly started to think about all of the intersections of stress I was dealing with. I found through journaling and dedicated space to think about what factors were contributing to my pain and emotional state, that work was one of the biggest factors. My team felt disconnected and I felt as though I couldn’t be open. I felt isolated, and the pressure of showing up and ‘doing my best’ when my best in pain just didn’t seem to cut it caused me to feel depressed. Not only was my migraine health in bad shape, but my blood pressure was also suffering. It finally came to a point where I had to dig myself up and out, even a little bit, because I felt and looked like darkness. I had to do something about what I could control---in my case, I couldn’t control the pandemic, nor could I control my migraines beyond treatment and management, and one of the things really dampening my management was the stress of my job. I had to do something about work.
Communicating at work
Communicating needs at work is not an easy task, under even the best of circumstances, because it requires vulnerability and trust, and often in my experience many workplaces have not met my needs with open arms. It was scary to reach out to my team to ask for help, but I felt I had no option. I began to be honest with my coworkers, and luckily, they were very understanding. We were all going through similar difficult adversity in our own way, and I was encouraged to learn that they also had needs that weren’t being met during this difficult time. After broaching needing support with one coworker, we began to talk more openly as an entire team about getting through stress together. We began to share more tasks, and things started to become more manageable, very slowly albeit - just as I am always reminded that in this community I am not alone, it was a total game-changer to be affirmed in the fact that I was not alone at work either. Work started to become more manageable in small ways that helped me cope with pain in other areas of my life. I began to feel lifted bit by bit out of the darkness. I am still under a mountain of stress, but having a lens of solidarity made a big difference.
I also realized unlike ever before the true limits of my capacity under the circumstances, and naming that out helped me to have words both to express my needs, but also in identifying saying ‘No, I can’t do that at this time.’ I feel truly lucky because I know that so many are not able to openly communicate about chronic pain at work. Another way I have been coping in journaling like mad. I found that part of my work-migraine-pandemic stress was literally being perpetuated by holding it all in my body. The tension in turn just fed into the loop of pain.
New tools to cope
Along with communicating with those around me, journaling, acceptance, and being in touch virtually with my doctor more often than I used to, I also purchased a few tools and adopted a few practices that helped make my 2020 less stressful. One thing that I used daily now and that I love is a massager. It is the kind that you loop your arms into and it can be moved to the lower back and up to the neck. Goodness! The first day I used this I felt a literal shock because I hadn’t realized how much built-up tension was just sitting on my bones like a pile of bricks. After just the first day I felt as though I must have unclenched my jaw for the first time in months!
I also started stretching more consistently. I am not great at stretching as it is difficult for me to keep up those routines, so I had to create a small contest for myself. I decided, at nearly thirty years old, I wanted to achieve a split for the first time. This little goal that was just for me made me feel like I had something to look forward to! This in turn helped me get through work stress a little more easily - after a long day, I would do something just for me.
I wish I could say these things stopped my migraines, cured my stress, and made everything sunshine and rainbows. Not quite, but the consistency of doing something for myself, not feeling so isolated, and working out the stress in my body has made a marked difference.
Leaning into shared experience and my loved ones
Sometimes work can be stressful and isolating because many work environments lack one very important thing: loving and kind culture. I am grateful to have understanding coworkers, but I realized managing the stress of the pandemic, migraines, and work was only going to be possible if I filled my life even more with connecting with my loved ones. When I was in the darkest moments of last year, I would call my baby brothers and every ounce of pain would seem to melt away at the sound of their laughs. I can’t state enough how much leaning into that love became a glimmering light where the deadline didn’t matter for a moment, the pain was more manageable for a moment.
I also spent a lot of time just scouring and reading stories in our community. Each time I read a story of someone else navigating work or lack thereof with migraine during the pandemic, I felt less alone. Things have been really tough, and while I am still on this never-ending journey of balance, I know there are ways for me to live with the intersections of pain.
My top takeaways
The most critical shifts for me managing the added stressors in my life were:
- Communicating more openly at work and asking for help
- Saying no when I needed to
- Listening to and treating my body with care
- Leaning into loved ones
- Increasing communication with my doctor
- Journaling and naming out what and how I felt
What has your experience been like living with migraine while working through the pandemic? How have you managed? Did you implement new or different tools? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?