Migraines and Self-Care

Turning Migraines into Mountains

Once again, I have a migraine and once again I’ve taken something for it. Now, there’s the night time stuff and the day time stuff – both over the counter, not prescription medications mind, my migraines aren’t quite that heinous (though trust me, they’re migraines, so they’re pretty heinous), but the night time stuff makes me drowsy and stupid for about 12 hours and the day time stuff has caffeine in it.

Given that I woke up at 5:45 this morning with this puppy, at 7 am I was practically bouncing out of bed with a grin on my face. But that’s  the thing – the medication takes me to a silly place, really, one where I all too easily forget that I’ve given myself a migraine and perhaps a smidgen of self-care is warranted. Now yes, there are things I’ve scheduled to do today, but some of them could happen another day. I could take it easy. But it’s not easy to recall that when I’m bouncing out of bed ready to climb Mount Everest.

So, let’s talk about this conundrum of self-care,  yes?

Self-Care vs. Self-Medication

Self-care. It doesn’t require a spa with full services to do those things for one’s self that are, in fact, caring. What’s more, most of the time the standard things that make the average American ‘feel better’ don’t actually qualify as self-care. They could be filed more under the heading of self-medication. You know, when one feels better after a drink or three, after buying another pair of shoes, after eating the entire bag of Oreos or potato chips, after having an all day West Wing marathon… As fun as some of these things are, and as fun as most things are in moderation, over stimulation of the frontal cortex, over eating, over spending and over drinking serves in the same capacity as caffeine-asprin-acetometaphen cocktail that I took at 5:45 this morning. It dulls the pain without healing the root.  And what is pain but a red flag that something is amiss? When we take away the red flag, we’re fooling ourselves if we imagine that everything is somehow alright now.

Self-care is more about the things that actually help to rejuvenate a person. While it is absolutely true that most of us come chock full of so many bad habits and old, unexamined negative patterns that one day of being kinder to ourselves isn’t going to change everything overnight, it is also true that one day of being kinder to ourselves is going to start a ball rolling that can turn into the rock that started the avalanche – at which point lots of things change overnight.

So how do we get that ball rolling?


Self-care can look like a lot of things to a lot of people, but what you need to do right now is going to be a product of who you are and what you’ve done to get yourself into the present situation. But there are a couple of helpful hints that can help anyone out of a jam, and they start with honest answers to simple questions – simple, but not necessarily easy. Right now, let’s tackle just one of those questions.

What am I feeling?

If you think you’re feeling nothing, or you’re completely fine, and yet you’re at a place where you’ve decided that you need self-care, then I would gently suggest that perhaps you’re not quite as in touch with your feelings as you might imagine. And feelings are incredibly important. So do what you need to do to get in touch with your feelings and honor them. Always honor what has occurred or it could get ugly later on… It would be like sweeping unwanted emotions under a carpet and pretending they don’t exist, whilst under the carpet those unwanted emotions are growing teeth and claws and will be coming out one day, perhaps when you least want them to.

Express Those Emotions

Part and parcel of truly honoring the emotions that we have is giving them safe and complete expression. It’s really the only way that we can move on. Again, this step looks different for each person, but here are some things that you can try. If you’re feeling angry, or any of the ‘gentler’ version of anger, like annoyance, irritation, resentment, impatience, sarcastic – try screaming into pillows, punching pillows, or going for a doctor-sanctioned bit of hard cardio exercise. If you are fortunate enough to have access to a punching bag, go wail on it.  If you’re feeling fearful, or any of the ‘milder’ versions of fear like worried, wary, anxious, sensitive, overwhelmed or edgy it could be helpful to try to cry. In this case, anything that will bring on a tear could be useful as a fuse to light the larger issue you’re trying to get in touch with.

The idea is to express the emotion… and then once it is out, begin to move on. No one wants to dwell too long in anger or sadness – we want joy, peace, love – the whole nine yards.

Getting To Joy

Self-care is ultimately about doing those things that will get you to that joyful, peaceful, loving state. Sometimes it takes some remedial work – working out the lingering negative emotions to clear the path, so to speak. And then it’s time for a change of scenery – literally.  If you’ve just worked out your anger by screaming into pillows in your bedroom, then for heaven’s sake get out of the house. Go for a walk around the block. Meet a friend for coffee. Get a complete change of scenery. That’s step one.  Step two: be present minded. If you’ve never tried it, this is simpler than you can imagine and harder than it seems. It’s really just training your mind to be under your own control, rather than you under its control. Start simple – as you’re walking around the block, feel your body. Feel the impact of your heel on the pavement and see if you can feel it all the way up your spine. Feel your clothes. Count your breaths. Concentrate on any aspect of your experience without allowing your mind to wander wherever it will. Or if you’re sitting having coffee by yourself, look at the coffee for a good long while before you drink it. Then smell it. Feel the warmth of the mug in your hands. Immerse yourself into the experience of it so that by the time you actually take the first sip, it’s a sensory overload. The point, again, is to immerse your mind into the experience of doing a thing without thinking about it and telling yourself stories about it. When we are immersed in an experience, the mind is quiet.

Step three: Experience Joy. Enjoy things. That is to say, put joy into what you do. En-joy them. Ask yourself, what is the joyful thought in this moment? What is the perspective on this good/bad/whatever moment that is going to make me grin?  Now, step three really is a lot easier if we’ve done steps one and two, but once we get our selves trained so we acknowledge our emotions when we have them and our mind is under our control and not visa versa, it can seem like we’re just skipping to Step Three.  And that’s the place we all really want to get to – to experience joy no matter what happens.

And when we all get to that place, there’s no telling what humanity can do…

[Want more about this experience-joy-all-the-time thing? Talk to Sare about Spiritual Direction.]

One comment

  1. Your comment about being in the present/being present-minded reminds me of one of my favorite lines from a play I saw at the Vineyard Theater. One of the characters, played by Billy Crudup, was a writer with severe anxiety issues. When he started to spiral out of it, he would remind himself: “Be here now.” It’s a good reminder in the situations you describe.

    And migraines: ICK.

Leave a Reply