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Illustration by Brittany England

COVID-19 has radically changed the way we live, work, and socialize. Case in point: Videoconferencing technology, once reserved for workplaces, is now being used for everything from nonstop work meetings to yoga classes to baby showers and holiday dinners.

This has been bad news for those of us living with migraine, for whom screen time can be a trigger. It’s no surprise that, during this era of nonstop Zoom meetings and constant existential dread, my pain has reached a new personal worst.

I’ve had migraine since I was in high school, and stress has always been a trigger. However, in July it reached a new level, with 26 headache days and more intense aura than I’d ever experienced before.

Migraine overwhelmed my body to the point that my eyes were essentially non-functional, and the rest of my body shut down in exhaustion.

Since then, I have had to make drastic changes in my life, like cutting down screen time to just a few hours a day and even leaving a job that I loved.

These would be big changes at any time, but in 2020, stress feels omnipresent, and so much of life is through screens. Luckily, I’ve learned some tips for adapting to life with migraine in this new “normal.”

This is the most obvious point, but like many people living with migraine, I often need the extra push to talk with my neurologist when something isn’t right.

It doesn’t help that by the time something is amiss, the nature of migraine can make reaching out feel nearly impossible.

I had assumed that there was nothing my doctor could do for me, but it turned out that what treatments were available during the pandemic was evolving. We’re still tinkering with my regimen as always, but I have more options than I thought.

Regardless, it’s important to always let your doctor know about any sudden or drastic change to your condition.

Like many people living with chronic migraine, I have long carried an over-the-counter pain reliever and my abortive migraine medication with me at all times, but I didn’t have much more than that.

Whatever provides you symptom relief, if you can, get a version to keep in migraine rescue kits you keep at home and carry with you when you leave the house.

Cold is soothing for me, and I’ve found that mentholated patches for my neck and forehead and a mentholated gel for my neck and shoulders provide some relief while I wait for my medication to kick in.

This works for me, but it isn’t a standard treatment for migraine and may not work for you, especially if mentholated products are a trigger for you.

I finally buckled down and got some ice packs meant specifically for my head, face, and neck, and now I don’t know why I waited so long.

Not every product with the word “migraine” in it is worth it, but I find reviews from others living with migraine to be thorough.

The costs can add up, which is frustrating, but at least it feels like I’m taking some control and getting some relief — something we all deserve.

This is a biggie, since our jobs and school have all moved online, as well as our family gatherings, social lives, community activism, and kids’ schools.

Research shows that high levels of screen time are associated with migraine in young adults, and screen time was a clear acute trigger for me personally.

I spoke with my employer about my screen time limits and spaced out my day so I could build in breaks. They were very understanding, but in the end, I quit most of my volunteer positions, activism engagements, and eventually, my job, in an effort to get my health under control and finish my graduate degree.

I hope that isn’t the case for others, but I felt like I didn’t have many options left.

Unfortunately, not all employers are flexible, and for many, looking at a screen all day for work is unavoidable.

In that case, tinted light sensitivity glasses, such as TheraSpecs, may help.

Research shows that glasses with rose-colored lenses, or FL-41 lenses, may be beneficial for people with light-sensitive chronic migraine.

I started doing puzzle books to pass the time when I would normally play solitaire or catch up on news on Twitter on my phone, to stop myself from mindlessly taxing my eyes and my brain.

I like to purchase puzzles in a variety of difficulty levels, so I can do easy sudoku when I’m in a migraine hangover (aka “postdrome“) and bored but not really capable of complex thought.

Audiobooks are another favorite. My local library lends audiobooks through a digital platform that I can access through my phone, making it easy to listen while taking a preventive screen break. I’ve been listening to young adult novels, queer romance, and science fiction/fantasy, and it’s by far my favorite form of self-care.

The great outdoors is the ultimate in screen-free stress relief, whether you like to hike in the mountains or bike across your city. I love going for walks with my niece, and my family found that canoeing and kayaking are great, COVID-safe activities, given the natural distancing involved.

Personally, I struggle with the oft-repeated (and seldom examined) advice to exercise to prevent migraine attacks, because while it may be true for some, it’s hard to squeeze in time at the gym when you’re in pain.

However, I’ve found that during the pandemic, any excuse I can make to be outside, whether it’s sitting on a porch in the sunshine or running in the backyard with my niece, translates to less stress and less screen time.

On some Zoom calls, I go voice only and don’t look at the screen. On others, I unabashedly wear my ice pack headgear.

With my COVID pod, I’m much more upfront about migraine now than I ever was before. It’s hard to say why I kept it to myself when I was in pain before, but only my closest family members and a couple of friends really knew how bad it was.

It’s not for everyone, and I don’t always feel up to it, but telling my graduate school classmates early in the semester why I had a strange thing on my head has meant I don’t have to answer questions about it anymore.

My pod offers to pick up migraine supplies when they do grocery runs, and they’re completely unfazed by my wearing a full-face ice pack or laying down to rest my eyes in the living room while they watch TV.

Perhaps the biggest change that came from all of this is the one in my mindset: I can no longer afford to put anything else above my health.

I hadn’t realized how much I put other people’s needs before my own until my migraine attacks increased and forced the issue.

Like so many people with migraine, I’ve gone to or stayed out at social obligations while in pain. I’ve powered through more workdays than I can count, crashing only when I was on personal time.

Having seen how drastically it’s affected my health and other aspects of my life, my only option is to take better care of myself — whether that’s inconvenient to others or not.

Managing migraine during this era of increased screen time and stress is still very much a work in progress for me.

While we aren’t likely to escape the reality that Zoom is here to stay, we can take steps to advocate for ourselves and care for ourselves during this difficult time.

Delia Harrington is a Boston-based freelance writer, culture critic, policy nerd, and activist. Her work has appeared in DAME Magazine, The Rumpus, Den of Geek, Nerdist, Ravishly, The Mary Sue, Hello Giggles, and more. You can keep up with her work on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.