A migraine isn’t just a really bad headache, it’s much more intense. The invisible illness causes such debilitating symptoms as throbbing or pulsing pain, nausea and vomiting, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances. Effects range in severity and can last for hours or even days.
The worst cases can dramatically interfere with everyday life — many times, extreme pain sidelines those who have migraine, rendering them unable to work or engage in routine activities. What’s more, the onset of a migraine is seldom predictable, causing many to cancel plans or avoid stimulating social engagements altogether. Laying still in a cool, dark room when a migraine hits is sometimes the only way to ride one out.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), migraine, a neurological disease affecting over 15% of Americans, is one of the most prevalent illnesses worldwide. Despite its pervasiveness, migraine can be tough to treat effectively. Common remedies include over the counter and prescription medications (used to stop a migraine once it starts) and preventive medications taken daily to prevent them from occurring.
While useful for some, these medications are not fool-proof. Some have also found holistic remedies like acupuncture, essential oils and massage helpful in reducing symptoms. Another tool you may want to add to the list? Mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness Meditation as a Tool To Reduce Stress
Migraine triggers are abundant: caffeine, alcohol, foods like chocolate and cheese, artificial sweeteners and MSG; even changes in weather, dehydration, poor sleep or certain medications can cause a migraine. Stress, though, is the most common precursor to a migraine — it’s a trigger for up to 80% of the millions affected.
A recent, small study suggested mindfulness meditation may temper underlying stress that so often contributes to a migraine’s onset. For some, adapting a regular practice of meditation can go a long way in decreasing the frequency and severity of an attack when it happens. If you experience the headaches, it’s worth a shot.
Shannon Albarelli, Ph.D., a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist and certified mindfulness and meditation instructor, described meditation as a “mindful approach to pain and pain management.” Dr. Albarelli recommended meditation as a preventative measure because it can help you lower your stress level when practiced regularly.
“Your stress response has to do with muscle tension — clenching your jaw and lifting your shoulders up,” Albarelli said. “Meditation helps bring mindfulness to that [stress] so you can learn to relax your body. When you can learn to relax your body, it’s much easier to relax your mind.”
Any moment of stress, big or small, is uncomfortable and unpleasant, so we try to avoid it at all costs, said Paul Fulton, Ed.D., a Massachusetts-based clinical psychologist and founding member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy. Though understandable, actively pushing away stress, pain and difficult emotions can actually make things worse. Practicing mindfulness helps you learn to tolerate more discomfort.
“If you have physical discomfort or impatience or irritability or anxiety, it is possible to turn toward those experiences in nonresistance,” Fulton said, adding:
If you temporarily stop and make space for it, the unpleasant experience will still be unpleasant, but the need to try to fix it, or reject it, or react against it is gone, and it’s possible to be in the middle of difficult situations and not be so troubled.
Starting a Meditation Practice Is Simple
Implementing a meditation practice is easy; it only requires willingness and time — even a few minutes a day goes a long way if you stick with it. This could be just taking “two minutes to slow your mind down, to close your eyes and not be on a screen, to take a deep breath — it’s still going to be beneficial,” Albarelli said.
For beginners, it’s really valuable to seek guidance, whether through a mediation app or an online instructor-led class, said Fulton. “Start small and slow. If you can do five minutes on a daily basis, that’s terrific.” Meditation apps such as Headspace or InsightTimer can be a great place to start.
While more mindfulness is always encouraged, your first priority should be finding a way to make it fit within your lifestyle as opposed to setting unachievable expectations. And don’t worry if you get distracted by your thoughts while practicing.
“Minds will wander, because that’s what they’re built to do,” Fulton said. “In a single sitting, it might happen dozens or hundreds of times. Most essential is that willingness to begin again and again.”
Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation can be a powerful way to counteract the migraine-triggering effects of stress. Still, it may not work for everyone, and there are other treatment that can help. If migraine headaches are interfering with your life, consult with your doctor or a headache specialist. To kick off a meditation practice, do what you can consistently.
“It’s like going to the gym for your mind. We’re really good at knowing how to exercise our body, but when it comes to our mind, we don’t have as many tools,” Albarelli said. “It’s almost like a power nap, but better.”