The Power of a Migraine versus The Power of Spirit

It is odd, I think, to consider our relationship with our migraines. If you have them like I do—and if your reading this, I imagine you do—they take up as much (or more) space in your body, mind, and soul as a spouse, job, or child. A migraine can consume more space in my life than any hobby or interest. At times it is my only interest, my only avocation, and my only companion. A migraine can envelop me to a degree that I cannot consider anything else around me. A migraine is, at those times, my Higher Power. It decides what I do and what I don’t do.

I see spirituality as those things that bring deep meaning to our lives. For most of us that is family, faith, work, friendships, hobbies, pets… For Migraineurs, it is often the constant threat of an impending attack. At those times we have a relationship with migraines that is more compelling than most anything in our lives—than the things that truly give meaning to our lives. That being the case, an approach to migraines that includes spiritual care and healing seems appropriate.

We ascribe great meaning to that threat. And we do so for good reason. Migraines suck. Along with the belief that Migraines have great power over us comes a degree of anticipatory anxiety and fear. Anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration are emotional and spiritual side-effects of a migraine.

So, I have recently started thinking about my migraines a little differently. How can I have a relationship with it and retain some power and authority in my life? What are the spiritual implications of my migraines? Can I treat the emotional and spiritual side-effects and feel better? How might I maintain Spirit in the face of the All Consuming Migraine?

I have lots of experience with this subject. I have a Master’s of Theology and Recovery Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary and am in training to be an Interfaith Chaplain through a program known as CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education—administered through Stanford and the ACPE—The Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. To date I have logged more than 600 clinical hours in the care of others’ spiritual concerns and another 200 hours of classroom training.

All that education and training doesn’t make me qualified to comment on the Spiritual impact of an illness or condition on the sufferer. My experience does. So, I’d like to share a spiritual experience with you: I had debilitating lower back issues for 25 years. I tried everything that was recommended—chiropractic, exercise, surgery, rest, PT. A sneeze could (and often did) trigger a lower back spasm that would take me out for a week.

About eight years ago, I was in agony and barely able to walk. I climbed the stairs in our home and, as I would often do, stopped to stretch when I reached the top. I stopped to consider the relationship I was having with my back pain. It was the ruler of my life and my closest companion. I was wed to it. It called the shots. It had the power…I gave it the power. In that same moment, I came to realize that I could change my relationship with it and immediately came to the conclusion that my back pain was not my problem. Suddenly, the judgements I held about chronic back pain evaporated. I no longer considered it bad. It did not stop hurting, but it did stop ruling me. I still have daily back pain, but I no longer have to judge it or give it power or let it rule me. I have not had a down day due to back pain since. My back pain has become God’s problem.

I am taking the same approach to my migraines. My symptoms include daily vertigo and tinnitus, and the occasional unilateral headache with accompanying nausea and vomiting. Occasionally, it wins, but I feel increasingly neutral toward my symptoms. I don’t panic when they set in. Rather, I observe them and know that a migraine is not my problem. I can breathe into the symptoms. Meditate on them. Observe them. The symptoms often pass during this process. Often they don’t. But they has ceased to have the power to disrupt my spiritual and emotional being.

I do not think that an atheist or agnostic need struggle with a spiritual approach to treating migraines that includes spiritual care and healing. My wife is spiritual but does not care for the religion of our upbringing. But she has a compelling spiritual practice that gives meaning to her life and includes meditation, a community of friends, family love and support, horseback riding, and a plethora of other meaningful activities and beliefs. The things that give meaning to her life are more powerful than the many things with which she has struggled.

Taking an emotional and spiritual stand against my migraines has made me feel more powerful. Like my lumbago, I still encounter symptoms almost daily, but they have ceased to have power over my spiritual and emotional life. In treating the emotional and spiritual side-effects, I have reduced the power the physical symptoms have over me.

More importantly, I think that can be the case for anybody, no matter his or her religions convictions. Seek out a spiritual practice or discipline. Meditation, spiritual reflection, small group meetings, Yoga, religious worship, community activism, lunch with a close friend…these are all spiritual efforts that summon a greater good. Tapping into that and recognizing the strength of the spirit can help us to feel more powerful and capable of addressing some migraine symptoms.

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