Managing the Migraine Monster

Posted on January 17th, 2013 by in Healthy Living

It’s said by many spiritual folks that we choose everything in our lives, from relationships to accidents to riches to illnesses. Depending whom you ask, we choose things for reasons unconscious (we’re trying to heal a childhood wound); metaphysical (we’re working out a past-life issue); psychological (we’re looking for power/safety/validation/etc.); or all of the above. Though this feels mostly true to me, it doesn’t necessarily make certain “choices” clear or more navigable. And as my sometimes self-hating psyche knows too well, there’s a line between exploring this idea of choice in a gentle, curious way that helps us take responsibility and heal, and using it to blame and beat ourselves silly.

These are some of the many things I think about when I’m enjoying one of my more intriguing life choices: migraine headaches. Despite yoga, drinking plenty of water, being mindful of triggers, getting acupuncture, etc., I get about four to six a month. They come on as a twinge—in my neck, head, and/or brain—and sometimes they pass, subtle as they came. And sometimes they build—to a dull throbbing, deep nausea, and slurred speech. When that happens, if I don’t pop a prescription pill ASAP, the migraine explodes, usually out both ends (sorry), for three to six highly unpleasant hours.

Those many minutes—which stretch out a looooong time—give me a lot of time to practice yoga. Not the hatha kind (movement is usually excruciating), but the BRFWA kind. That’s short for Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow, a central part of the Kripalu Yoga curriculum. While curled on the bathroom floor, sucking on ice while melting another cube on my burning face, I rotate, in a jumbled, semi-conscious way, through all five of those to get through:

  • I try to keep my breath slow, steady, and audible to mitigate the panic that inevitably ensues from one of these episodes; though I’ve never ended up hospitalized I fear I might. The breath anchors and softens me.
  • I relax as much of my mind and body as possible. My chill-out mantra is: It’s OK, it’s all OK.
  • I feel because there’s no choice. A migraine is nothing if not a smack in the face that says: FEEL ME! I’ve found I can over-feel, though. Recently I heard Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg relate a story in which even a hard-nosed meditation master said, “Don’t stay with pain for too long; it will exhaust you.” So true. I back off from diving into the direct pain hole extensively because stamina is key here, and over-feeling can jack up the pain.
  • I watch. Sort of. Calm watching might be the hardest thing during an acute, active pain thrashing. The witness is in the mind; the mind seems to be in the brain; and when my brain feels like it’s being stabbed repeatedly from inside with ice picks, it’s challenging to find that inner sight. During the ebbs, though, I sometimes notice enough things like blaming thoughts (this is because I ate that pizza—I am such an idiot) or fearful thoughts (this will never end), and can gently re-direct (I love you and you’re safe).
  • I allow. Because resisting makes the Migraine Monster fight harder. Because “letting go” doesn’t mean the pain improves, but it does mean that I move through it with less suffering and more grace.

As for what’s actually causing these disruptive demons from visiting so often, I don’t know. I guess it gives me a time-out, but I’d certainly “choose” a mellower way. Louise Hay writes in Heal Your Life: “Migraine headaches are created by people who want to be perfect and who create a lot of pressure on themselves. A lot of suppressed anger is involved…”

It’s a controversial way to look at illness—some say it blames the victim—but it can also be empowering if it feels true. And indeed I’m working on some of that. But I know a lot of other people I could say the same about who have never met the Migraine Monster. And do all 36 million Americans who get migraines have the same hang-ups? I don’t know how this spiritual causality stuff works, exactly. I’ll keep digging. Meanwhile, in lieu of a reason or a cure, I’ll also keep BRFWA-ing as best as I can.


About Valerie Reiss

Valerie is a writer, editor, speaker, consultant, and Kripalu Yoga instructor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Women's Health, Natural Health, Yoga Journal, Beliefnet, Vegetarian Times, and more. She keeps a gratitude blog, wrote Yoga Journal's NYC blog, Samadhi and the City, and has blogged for and others. As Holistic Living & Blogs Editor at she also co-wrote the popular Fresh Living blog. She was previously Articles Editor at Breathe, a yoga-inspired lifestyle magazine. A native New Yorker, Valerie has an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from Beloit College. She's also working on a book about yoga, cancer, and some of life's other humbling hilarities.

6 Responses to “Managing the Migraine Monster”

  1. Faith Minton January 17, 2013 12:49 pm #

    Interesting.. I have had Migraines since I was 18.. am now 57. Daily Meditator for over 35 years.. eat, sleep well. daily yoga.. The number of migraine slowed down when I was in mid 50’s then stated up again.. Only 4 – 6 per year though.. I do not agree w/ Louise Hay’s hypothesis for me – I am not driven or need to be perfect..I have heard there is neurological connection.. my situation seems to be related to optical. On the Diane Rhemes radio show this year there was a guest saying more research needed in area of headaches & Migraine.
    Thanks for sharing this..

    • Valerie Reiss January 17, 2013 4:24 pm #

      Thanks, Faith, for sharing your experience. Yes, it’s one of the most underfunded common illnesses–really needs more love and attention.

  2. Paige Parisi January 17, 2013 8:45 pm #

    BRFWA is good advice! Nice post, all very well said. Be well~

  3. Ashli Hilton February 10, 2013 12:51 pm #

    I too suffer from periodic migraines! I found the YOGA CURE- get into a prone position (child’s pose). Relax into it and take slow deep breathes. Try and get the top of your head onto the mat- this rushes the blood to your head. Then release back into the child’s pose. Alternate for 30 minutes. :) My theory is that migraines are a result of an imbalance in the brow and crown chakra as you might be too controlling or trying to see beyond the present too much… This helps focus attention on these areas and bring them into balance. For more meditations, chakra info and a calmer mind body and spirit visit my blog!

  4. edpullenmd August 12, 2013 12:16 am #

    Great post, thanks.

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