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7 Distraction Techniques for Migraine Pain

Reading time | 6 mins

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but migraines hurt, a lot. They typically last between 4-72 hours, with my own migraines almost always lasting the full three days.

That is a long time in a lot of pain, with very little available to ease it. As a result, I have found distraction the best way to deal with chronic pain. When I’m unable to distract myself, I end up in a heap of tears as the pain becomes overwhelming. Consequently, I have developed a stock of techniques to help deal with the pain that migraine brings.

My migraine pain distraction techniques

How viable or effective these distractions are will vary from person-to-person and migraine-to-migraine, but I have found them all to be effective at various times. My photophobia symptoms aren’t usually too bad so many of these do rely on being able to see. Depending on my cognitive level during a migraine, I will combine any of these as needed to get the distraction I need from the pain.

Getting lost in an audiobook

I cannot emphasise enough what a huge difference audiobooks have made to my life with chronic migraine. In the middle of the night when a migraine wakes me, and I’m desperately trying to get back to sleep after taking my medication, I know I can lie in the dark with my eyes closed and lose myself as a story is read to me.

I find new books engrossing and distracting, but when the pain is too much to be able to concentrate on a new story, I also find great comfort in re-listening to familiar books. I’d also recommend using the bookmark and sleep functions, so that you can go back to where you started if you were lucky enough to fall asleep.

So as not to disturb my husband, I use sleep headphones since my everyday headphones are too uncomfortable to lie on. They also have the added benefit of covering my eyes too, which is particularly useful during the daytime if photophobia is too great to be able to deal with even a dim room.

Binge-watching my favourite TV shows

Streaming services get a lot of use from me during a migraine flare. I used to be limited to what I had recorded on a set-top box and what was on daytime TV (DVDs are ruled out because they require me to physically get up to change the discs). Nowadays, I can find a whole lot of distraction right at my fingertips.

Because of my photophobia, I have to make sure the brightness is turned right down on my TV which can exclude some darker shows, but most are perfectly watchable. There’s also a great variety of shows depending on how much brain power I have.  I can binge watch a comedy show when I feel like I can’t really take much in. When my brain is running well and needs a bit more mental stimulation to distract from the pain, a hard-hitting drama will do the trick.

Concentrating on my favourite crafts

Crafting has been a real saviour for when it comes to pain distraction. I have been cross-stitching for over 20 years, which is great. But it also takes focus and concentration – something I often lack during a migraine. I learned to knit six years ago, which has proven to be a much more migraine-friendly craft.

I tend to have a variety of projects on the go at once, so that I have a choice of things that require different levels of concentration. The projects that need intense concentration are good for when my pain level is high but not affecting my brain’s ability to process information. The projects that are very simple and only require muscle memory are good for when I can’t think but need something to focus on. (Of course, I always make sure to have a few different projects in between!)

Some of my projects have been very practical, like making a cosy for my mug to ensure my tea stays warm for longer and keeps me drinking so I stay hydrated. I also made some fingerless gloves to prevent my hands from getting cold because of how sedentary I sometimes am. Mostly though, I knit clothes which gives me a real sense of accomplishment for making the most out of my time spent suffering with migraine. Which otherwise would feel like I was pouring my life away.

Focusing on puzzles

I have a big stack of puzzle books in my house at all times, along with dozens of puzzle apps for my tablet. I have always loved doing puzzles for as long as I can remember (getting a new puzzle book whenever we went on holiday or on a trip as a child was always a big highlight for me), but with migraine, they have become even more important for me to focus on and distract my brain from the pain.

The more logical ones usually prove too challenging during a migraine attack and when I’m getting nowhere with a puzzle, I find the pain comes flooding back in. When I can focus on progressing through a logic puzzle - I particularly like Japanese puzzles - my brain goes into a kind of trance which pushes back the pain and gives me some relief.

Playing computer games

This is very hit and miss as it depends on the level of photophobia I am experiencing with each migraine, but games on my tablet or handheld console have proven to be great distractions.  I have spent many, many hours in my favourite MMO (massively multiplayer online) game, not playing the game proper, but rather levelling up my crafting, doing some resource gathering, or trying to acquire silly things like fishing achievements. These things don’t need me to be alert or reactive, but are engaging enough to help distract me.

Engrossing myself in writing  

I don’t find writing hits the sweet spot for pain distraction very often, but when it does, it really does. I love to participate in NaNoWriMo, where you write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Although I have found that this tends to push me to my limits, so I don’t participate every year. But when I do it can be great for distracting my brain as I create a whole world, the characters, and their stories in my head. I try to write about migraine whilst I am experiencing each one, as indeed I am as I’m writing this very article.

Planning for the future

Sometimes I do this only in my head, sometimes with a pencil and paper, and sometimes with my laptop and the internet, I love to plan, and this makes for a great distraction for my brain. Planning holidays, trips, craft projects, home improvements, meal plans, cosplay outfits, epic events, stories, wacky hair colours, presents for people… there are so many things that I can plan to help distract me from the pain. Sure, many of them never happen because of migraine, but the process of planning them is still a great distraction at the time.

The takeaway

I’m sure there are lots of methods of distraction that I haven’t found yet, so I plan to keep on trying as many things as possible. Working out what helps the most when I’m experiencing bad photophobia and/or dizziness is particularly important, as those are the times when I need the most distraction and have found the least available methods.

Perhaps I will try an audio format for learning a new language next. There always seems to something else worth trying!

UK/MED/19/0319 December 2019