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Woman meditating by the sea to combat the stress and anxiety that come with migraine attacks

How Mindfulness Helps Me Cope with Migraine

Reading time | 6 mins

When I first started a meditation practice to deal with the effects of my chronic migraine, it was very difficult.

I wish I was one of those people who could just sit cross-legged, put my fingers and thumbs together, chant “om,” and drift off into a Zen place.

I’m not.

I’m a mom, teacher, wife, friend, writer, and person living with chronic migraine. My mind doesn’t just “shut off” to meditation, and I imagine many people feel similarly. But over time I realized that that’s why it’s called a “practice” — it takes time and effort before you start to see results.

Why I meditate

I started meditating as a natural way to combat the stress and anxiety that come with migraine attacks, and to try and help myself deal with the inevitable pain by calming my mind and body. My hope was to somehow find some sense of personal control over migraine, since living with a chronic illness often leaves you feeling powerless at times.

Finding holistic ways to deal with my body and emotions is an important part of my life. I am a person who practices gratitude each day, and I thought meditation could help me to turn those thoughts inward. Above all, I enjoy being present, and my hope was that meditation could be another resource in my toolkit to combat the effects of migraine — and create better self-awareness in order to do so.

Does meditation for migraine actually work?

The short answer: maybe.

When it comes to migraine, more research is needed to determine if mindfulness — and meditation in particular — has a significant positive impact on the severity or frequency of migraine attacks.

That said, research into the health benefits of mindfulness have found that meditation can be useful for stress relief and reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and some pain conditions. This may be because mindfulness practices promote relaxation and may help to change emotional and behavioral patterns that help people to have a better overall quality of life.

In my personal experience, I’ve found that simply making time and finding an environment that works for meditation allows me to relax a bit and release some of the muscle tension I experience as a result of my migraine attacks.

Finding your meditation style

When it comes to targeting specific thoughts or feelings, finding the right meditation style will take some trial and error.

I learned this the hard way during a migraine attack when I tried a guided meditation for pain. I had hoped that particular meditation would help take the consuming thoughts of my head pain away to focus on other parts of my body. Instead, those prompts actually intensified my feelings of pain and made me panic. The phrase, “Identify where the pain is coming from if you are able” instantly made me quit that session. My migraine pain was all-consuming, but there was no question as to where it hurt.

I also tried a series that had me chanting words or phrases. I found this difficult to do — the chants were not in a language I could understand and I wasn’t sure what I was saying. As a result, it didn’t really feel like the chanting was relevant to my reason for meditating in the first place.

I need distraction when I’m experiencing a migraine attack. I need to turn my thoughts away from pain and toward a time I wasn’t in pain. The next time I tried meditating during an attack, I opted instead for soothing music with no talking at all, and that helped to calm my mind. When I’m not in pain, I do enjoy guided meditations for relaxation and overall peace of mind.

There are a lot of resources online, but so far my favorite is an app called Insight Timer, which offers a lot of different meditation styles and options to choose from — some are guided visualizations or prompts, others use chants and music, and some are completely silent. What’s great is that you can also filter out meditations by length — at this stage, I typically can’t meditate for longer than 10 minutes without my mind wandering. It’s nice to be able to fit in a few moments of mindfulness without committing to a 30+ minute session.

Though meditation is one of the newer tools I use to cope with migraine, I realized that I have actually been practicing a form of mindfulness for years without knowing it. In seeking out ways to deal with my condition, I have learned how to focus my breathing and ease my mind by thinking of positive times outside of my migraine attack. This doesn’t always help to “clear” my mind, but it does reduce the anxiety a migraine attack can cause.

Even though some of the transcendental meditations in the app weren’t the best fit for me, I’ve found that repeating affirmations like “I can do this,” “You’ve done this before, you’ll do it again,” and “Please God, hear my prayers” do help me to cope.

Creating a routine

I’ll be honest with you — meditation isn’t yet a part of my daily routine. Finding time is a real priority, but it’s not always possible.

If you can’t find the time every single day, start with a reasonable goal that works for your lifestyle and schedule — that might be two or three times a week, or it might only be once. Try setting a timer on your phone for the day and time that you’d like to meditate, that way you have a reminder.

For now, I mostly use meditation to help relax when I know a migraine attack or other stressful event is coming, or to unwind in the aftermath. The more I’ve practiced, the more I’ve found that I want to do it more — that’s a great first step!

Give it time

Like most things, really getting into a groove with meditation takes time. It can be hard to “drop in” right away, and I definitely struggle with really being able to clear my mind. Some people devote years, decades even, of their lives to mastering the art of meditation, and even they struggle at times.

Be gentle with yourself if you get distracted, and don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t seem to click right away.

Find a comfortable space

One of the great things about meditation is that you can do it just about anywhere. I generally love a dark, quiet room and a space that is calm. I’ve meditated in bed, in my living room, and even in the bath. I found that in the bath I was able to connect with my breathing more easily, and the warm water helped me achieve stillness in my body.

I don’t think there are any rules as to where you meditate — it’s really what works for you. You might prefer the privacy of your own bedroom or even an outdoor space. For me, the key is to find a place that is pleasing to my senses — that means low light, low sound, a pleasing scent (such as a lavender or peppermint essential oil) or no scent at all, and a comfortable temperature. This environment helps set the stage for relaxation.

Practice, practice, practice

If you’re just testing the waters with mindfulness methodologies, remember that meditation isn’t about being perfect. There is no one right or wrong way, place, or time to do it. It’s OK if you get lost or distracted, and it’s OK if you can only commit to a few minutes each time.

Meditation is like any therapy — we all react differently and benefit in different ways. Mindfulness is an evolving solution to so many ailments, but the only way you will see any benefit (or lack thereof, for that matter!) is through time and practice.

Don’t forget: Finding your own path is the only way to travel.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

NPS-US-NP-00299 MAY 2018