When pain is debilitating, taking ownership of your environment can help you feel more in control.
Mindful tweaks to my environment, preparing for attacks on days I’m feeling well, and learning to calm my nervous system have significantly improved my life with chronic migraine.
When a migraine attack strikes and I have taken all of my available acute medications, sometimes the only thing left to do is patiently wait out the neurological storm passing through my brain.
Every “migraine brain” requires its own tailored toolbox. No two brains are exactly alike, and part of an effective migraine management plan involves uncovering the unique recipe of things that bring you the deepest sense of comfort and relief during high pain.
The following strategies have helped to anchor me through days, weeks, and years of intense and debilitating pain. None of them “fix” my pain, but all of them make it more bearable.
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to manage light triggers.
Many living with migraine disease experience photophobia even when an attack is not active.
In my home, we have dimmers on every lamp, salt lamps in multiple rooms, fairy lights strung over bookshelves, and windows outfitted with light-filtering and blackout curtains. When a migraine attack strikes, I immediately dim the lighting around me to help calm my nervous system.
When I experience migraine pain outside of the softly lit cocoon of my home, I rely heavily on sunglasses and a baseball hat.
When traveling, I bring a weighted eye mask, which helps mimic the relief I get from my blackout curtains at home. Migraine prevention lenses have also been extremely helpful in managing light triggers, both indoors and out.
Heat and ice are two of my most constant migraine companions.
I generally prefer ice for severe pain — so much so in fact, that an entire shelf in our freezer is dedicated to my collection of ice packs of different sizes and types. I also find hot water bottles and microwaveable heat packs helpful when applied at the base of my head, on my neck, or over my eyes.
When experimenting with heat or ice for pain management, it’s critical to find what works for you.
Some people adamantly prefer one over the other, and then there are those of us who use both. Neither is superior; it just depends on your brain, how it responds to external stimuli, and the type of attack you’re experiencing.
If you use acute rescue medications, take time when you’re not in the middle of an attack to organize them to be easily accessible.
This might mean putting together a migraine first aid kit or stocking a drawer in your bedside table with meds, nausea-friendly snacks, and water bottles.
If you live with others, it can be helpful to show them where you keep things and what you need in the middle of an attack.
One thing that has not changed in my decade of living with migraine is the advice from every neurologist echoing that “the sooner the treatments are administered, the more effective they are.”
Knowing how crucial this timing is, I’m careful to not leave the house without a mini migraine first aid kit on hand that includes my rescue medications.
Two words: shower stool. I never thought I’d own a shower stool in my 20s, but here we are!
One of the most effective ways for me to find temporary pain relief is to let hot water wash over my throbbing head and eyes. A shower stool makes this possible and comfortable, even when I’m really struggling.
I spent years sitting on the shower floor during migraine attacks — never a pleasant experience — and wish I had discovered this tool sooner.
There are inexpensive, compact versions easily available online. Depending on your sensitivity to smells, it can also be helpful to put a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil on the shower floor.
Wrapping up in a dark room beneath a pile of blankets and soft pillows is one thing I am always able to find gratitude for, even during my worst attacks.
Feeling supported by your external environment can be deeply comforting and even signal to your nervous system that you are safe — helping to interrupt the natural fight, flight, or freeze response that pain elicits.
I could write an entire article about my favorite blankets, pillows, and bed linens. Whatever your personal favorites are, outfit yourself with comfort in the space where you tend to “ride out” a migraine storm. You deserve it.
Applying the same careful intention to your wardrobe can bring even more support inside of an attack.
On the days migraine leaves you bed- or home-bound, wearing comfortable clothes that don’t feel frumpy can elevate your mood and quiet your inner critic.
Be sensitive to your body and start to notice what fabrics feel soothing and which actually add discomfort to your day (farewell, jeans).
Mindfulness is widely supported by major neurology and headache institutions as an effective tool for managing migraine.
Migraine flares can trigger an avalanche of fear, guilt, and shame-based thinking. Mindfulness, particularly meditation, is an incredibly helpful tool to notice these narratives — choose ones that are more compassionate.
I also rely on writing to mindfully move through pain. I have journaled myself from a place of “high pain panic” to “high pain peace” more times than I can count.
Sometimes, spilling all of my emotion, worry, or frustration onto paper allows me to unload and create space for gentle acceptance — or at least active non-resistance.
The companionship of a pet can bring immense comfort inside pain.
Just knowing that my sweet pup is with me when I am hurting can settle and calm my soul. We even taught him a command, “rest time,” which he now knows means to come lay on the bed at my feet.
It may not be feasible to have a pet in your life, but I include it here as a gentle suggestion to those who might be considering doing so.
We thought long and hard about the decision, and I wondered if my medical needs would make it impractical.
Today, I can’t imagine life without my dog. The joy, companionship and comfort he has brought me has outweighed any inconvenience tenfold.
You are tougher than migraine
Part of what makes chronic migraine such a difficult condition to live with is its lack of predictability. Attacks can be chaotic in their frequency and onset, without clear patterns. This can make any attempt to control them feel distant, and at times, impossible.
Taking ownership of your environment is one way to put you back in the “driver’s seat” of your mind and body.
When you feel like you have tools, both pharmaceutical and otherwise, to adequately treat and manage your pain, you become more capable of reducing the burden of migraine in your life.
As you explore new strategies, be patient with yourself. What helps others may not work for you. And in moments where your migraine attacks feel like the toughest thing in the world, remind yourself that you are tougher.
Natalie Sayre is a wellness blogger sharing the ups and downs of mindfully navigating life with chronic illness. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and digital publications, including Mantra Magazine, Healthgrades, The Mighty, and others. You can follow her journey and find actionable lifestyle tips for living well with chronic conditions on her Instagram and website.