A simple “I understand” can go a long way.

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Heading into the holidays with migraine can feel incredibly daunting.

Living with chronic migraine through my 20s, I’m no stranger to the marathon of triggers that can accompany travel, increased activity, and festive celebrations.

Learning to communicate my migraine needs to family and close friends has dramatically helped smooth some of the more turbulent and difficult moments this season can hold.

If you have a close relationship with someone living with migraine, I hope that these strategies can inspire and empower you to give them some of the greatest gifts a migraineur can receive — understanding, support, and compassion from loved ones.

Navigating migraine-related canceled plans can trigger an avalanche of guilt and shame. This is especially true during the holidays, when we most want to connect with the people we love.

As an invisible illness, migraine is so often misunderstood, dismissed, or doubted by others. When a loved one reaches out saying they are unable to attend an event due to migraine, know that how you respond to this information can impact the harsh disappointment of a migraine flare.

Reassurance from others that I will be missed and that I am loved just as much, whether I attend an event or not, dramatically quiets the internal dialogue of criticism that canceled plans can trigger. Understanding replaces these feelings with thoughts of self-compassion.

When someone has to cancel at the last minute, let them know that you understand their migraine symptoms are not their fault and remind them that they have nothing to feel guilty about.

Lastly, although canceled plans from migraine symptoms are disappointing for everyone involved, try not to forget that the person canceling has to cope with their physical pain on top of emotional disappointment. Trust that your thoughtful words of support can be a lantern of warmth and love during the enveloping darkness and pain of a migraine attack.

Having “migraine allies” while navigating the holidays is invaluable. A short, intentional conversation before the festivities ramp up about how you can best support your loved one throughout the season can make a world of difference.

Every single person experiences migraine differently, so be sure to listen to what a person needs before offering advice. The best way to find out someone’s unique migraine needs is to set aside your own assumptions and instead just ask them!

Making time to have a conversation before someone is in the thick of an attack about what their specific triggers are and how you can respond will help you provide better real-time help. Remember, good listening involves asking thoughtful questions.

Here are a few you might want to use as conversation starters:

  • “Can I set up a dark room for you in case you need a break?”
  • “Do you want me to keep an ice pack in my freezer?”
  • “When you’re in the middle of an attack, can I bring you water or a snack?”
  • “What type of things are helpful to hear when you’re hurting? I love you and I want to be supportive even if I can’t take the pain away.”

If there are tasks you can check off the list for a person living with migraine, know that every little moment you try to reduce their exposure to triggers during the holiday season is helpful.

When you are out running errands, consider whether you could take something off a loved one’s plate. For example, if you’re shopping at Target, ask your friend if they need you to pick up extra wrapping paper. If you’re going to the pharmacy, ask if you can drop anything off for them.

Other above-and-beyond gestures that help me better manage my migraine, especially over the holidays, include:

  • dropping off a cooked meal
  • walking my dog
  • accompanying or driving me to appointments
  • letting me know you’re in my corner and will advocate on my behalf for better understanding of migraine at missed events

Many holiday events are too noisy, too loud, too late, or too crowded for me to attend and also manage my migraine health.

Missing out on special moments with family never gets easier, but when loved ones are willing to go out of their way to celebrate in alternate ways, like in shorter doses of time together or visiting in smaller groups, I feel extremely loved and seen.

If you notice that someone you love is unable to attend big events, ask them if there are other ways that you can celebrate together.

Know that something as simple as bringing a peppermint mocha to their home and visiting for 20 minutes can stand out as a highlight of their season and ease some of the sharp disappointment of missing out on larger gatherings.

Verbalizing aloud that you understand the unreliability and unpredictability of migraine disease— versus blaming the person experiencing the condition — is priceless.

Repeated reassurance of this from the people in my life allows me to release the heavy guilt that accumulates when my attacks impact my ability to be present with loved ones.

There are so many misconceptions about migraine, and most migraineurs carry that burden daily.

Never underestimate the value of the gift you give to the migraineur in your life when you validate their reality. Even though you can’t take away their pain, you can help them get through flares cocooned in more gentleness, compassion, ease, and understanding.


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 Instagram and her website.