5 things you can instantly do to lessen the pain of migraines
Pain - a world of it, tunnel vision, sounds fading in and out of awareness: What was happening to me? One moment I was feeling fine among high school classmates gathered around the piano as another boy played; the next, I was nauseous, seeing flashing lights, and feeling like a number twelve boot had been solidly placed, at great speed, into the side of my head.
Since then, I have had a few migraine headaches (1) and know now to avoid cheese or chocolate when the stomach's on empty. And I've spotted a few other triggers besides, such as prolonged stress and tension.
Avoiding migraine triggers has greatly reduced my incidence of migraine headaches. I've also found self-hypnotic techniques great at easing migraines, sometimes even stopping them in their tracks. I have migraines very rarely now, I'm happy to say. If one does pay its unwelcome visit, I 'get hypnotic' and put into practice what I preach.
Everything you (maybe didn't) want to know about migraines
After my first (and worst) migraine, I learned that:
- A migraine is a 'neurological syndrome' which produces altered bodily perceptions (sometimes you feel as if your limbs don't belong to you).
- Increased clumsiness and a feeling of unpleasant detachment can often be the first unwelcome sign that a migraine is on its way.
- A migraine can last from a few hours to three days or longer. One woman I helped would have week-long migraines. Gradually they went down to a day, then half a day, and finally stopped all together.
Some people manage their migraines with various meds, which might include strong painkillers for the headaches and maybe an anti-emetic to reduce nausea.
Because prevention is often easier than treatment, spot your migraine triggers and start to avoid any food or situation that seems to invite migraine trouble.
Okay, these are general considerations. But what can you do if a migraine has already started? Here you'll find 5 tips to help you deal with the migraine 'curse'.
1) Stop migraines in their tracks by tracking the pain
It sounds obvious but, as soon as possible, get into a quiet place, pull the curtains, and switch off the light. Bright or even moderate light can worsen the effects of migraine. If it is not entirely dark, then close your eyes and begin to imagine it is getting darker. Imagine it being 5% darker, then 20% darker, and so on. This can actually 'fool' the brain into believing it is darker than it really is.
When we suffer pain, we tend to be 'all or nothing' about it: I am either 'in pain' or 'not in pain'. But of course there are subtle degrees of pain. If you are experiencing a headache, say to yourself: "If ultimate pain is 100%, where am I right now?" You might decide you are 80 or 70. Now tell yourself: "I might not notice going down from 80 to 79 or even 75, but I'll notice when it goes down to 70..." Then start to imagine the numbers in your head going down: 70 being replaced by 69, by 68, 67, and so on. Track the sensations in your body as you visualise the 'pain grade' lowering. This technique can be surprisingly effective in lowering pain.
2) Stop migraines by relaxing
"Tense, nervous headache?" inquired the steely voiceover to an ancient painkiller commercial. And it's true. Migraine pain is worsened by tension and also causes it. But relaxation lowers your blood pressure, easing any tension in and around your brain. Relaxation also lowers stress hormones (such as cortisol) in your system and helps you release the natural painkilling chemicals.
Start by breathing deeply - focussing on breathing out longer than you breathe in. Tell yourself: "With each out-breath, I am going to relax more and more deeply." Direct your attention to different parts of the body in turn, letting them relax. Focus on your feet, legs and hips, hands, arms and shoulders, and finally your chest and neck. Imagine relaxation as a colour really starting to circulate around your body as you relax deeper.
3) Control your own blood flow (!)
This trick is quite easy to use, but very powerful. Migraine sufferers find that if they warm up their hands by, say, putting them near an open fire or under warm water, then their migraines often lessen and stop much quicker.
This may work because when we start to relax and feel sleepy, slightly more blood travels into the hands and feet as our core temperature drops. This relaxes us. But here's the really interesting bit: Research has found that 95% of people, on their first attempt, can warm their hands simply by imagining them heating up (2).
When I want to relax, go to sleep, or stop a migraine, I close my eyes and imagine my hands around an open fire. I imagine the air around the fire circulating around my hands and warming them. Try this - it's surprisingly effective.
Why not let me do it for you: Click on the audio link below to relax.
4) Stop migraines by reframing the pain
When it comes to pain, we can be terribly descriptive: "pulsating, stabbing, wrenching, tearing, ripping..." (I won't go on).
How we perceive migraine pain can actually affect the pain we experience. Try this:
Close your eyes and ask yourself: "If this pain/sensation were a colour, what colour would it be?" (It's amazing how many people say "red".)
Then ask yourself: "What shape would this pain/sensation be?" - perhaps square or oblong.
Then: "What texture would this pain/sensation be?" Many people say "jagged" or "sharp".
Now you have reframed the pain as a coloured shape with a texture. Next, with eyes still closed, gently start to change the colour, perhaps making it paler, and start changing and shrinking the shape and changing the texture. Now begin to move the shape away from the front of the head (or wherever it is) to the back...and slowly down the neck and back and eventually let it dissipate through the fingers and watch it drift away into space.
I have used this technique so many times with great results. Give it a go.
5) Remember comfort – even if it feels like you never had any
Finally, you can use 'remembered wellness' to feel better. We don't just remember with our minds, but with our bodies too. If I recall a time I was very angry, my blood pressure may rise (people with chronic heart conditions are encouraged not to recall times when they were very angry) and I may begin to breathe quicker and feel hotter.
If I recall reclining on a Caribbean beach (that's better), my blood pressure may go down; my hands and feet may feel warmer; I may begin to produce more serotonin in my brain, making me feel better; and so on.
Remembering wellness (3) is a technique that uses the physical aspect of memory. Starting to recall times you felt relaxed - totally mentally and physically comfortable and happy - can start to influence the way you feel now.
Take your mind back to a time - possibly a quiet but happy time - when you were feeling great. Start to picture it, imagine feeling the air in that place, hearing the sounds, etc.
I hadn't yet learnt so way back when in that music class, but you can take back control of migraine headaches.