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How I Learned to Listen to My Body’s Wisdom

bodys-wisdomI am an expert at pushing my body beyond its limits. I didn’t set out to excel at this skill. Ignoring my symptoms and pretending that I felt OK when I didn’t was the only way I could function, so that’s what I did for nearly two decades. It seemed to serve me well. I was a good student with lots of extracurriculars in high school and college. I worked then attended graduate school. I had the outward markings of success for a person in her early 20s.

I was also miserable physically and emotionally. I thought becoming adept at ignoring my body’s signals was helping me. It let me get good grades, work, and keep up with friends—how could that be bad? The reality is that it made me sicker and complicated my attempts to improve my health. Pushing so hard left me exhausted all the time. I didn’t know my symptoms or reactions well enough to assess whether treatments were effective. My life was dependent upon exceeding my limits, so I berated myself anytime symptoms sent me to bed.

This strategy proved to fail abysmally when I was disabled by chronic migraine at the age of 27. After a few years of abject frustration and desperation, I stumbled upon the ideas of pacing and balance. Successfully implementing either of these was impossible while I was still ignoring my body’s signals. Learning to listen was necessary if I ever wanted to achieve balance. (Learn how in Learning to Listen to Your Body and Sarah Hackley’s guest post from Monday.)

I am now so acutely attuned to what my body has to say—and aware of how much better my health and life are because of it—that I cannot fathom once believing that disconnection was actually a good thing. The value of listening to my body is apparent every single day. Recently, this connection led me to a realization that is allowing me to liberalize my diet.

A little background is necessary for this to make sense. A medical ketogenic diet requires measuring your food intake down to the gram. Vegetables, the primary source of carbohydrates, have to be fresh to be weighed properly. Otherwise, the ratio is thrown off by too many carbohydrates.

Friday I made a mistake weighing asparagus and ate too many carbohydrates. Following that meal was the first time in almost two weeks that brain fog did not prevent me from writing. I hadn’t eaten asparagus in a while and assumed the food itself was less of a trigger than other foods. But this didn’t track with my reaction to asparagus from a few weeks ago. That knowledge of my body’s reactions led me to important questions. What if the reduction in brain fog (a marker of a less severe migraine attack than usual) was because I accidentally decreased the ratio by increasing my carb intake? What if ketosis, which has only ever been slightly helpful for me, is actually a trigger now that I have a new, effective treatment in place?

These thoughts seemed untrustworthy. I was suspicious they were driven by wishful thinking. I ruminated on them for a day and talked them over with Hart, hoping that giving voice to them would reveal the truth. Nope. I finally thought to check in with my body. I considered my symptoms and compared them on that mild brain fog day to when I ate asparagus a couple weeks ago. I listened to the instinct honed through years of restrictive diets. I reminded myself that I was the expert on my own body. Although I was afraid of losing a Sunday with Hart if my intuition was wrong, my body said that this hunch was more than wishful thinking. It was time to start decreasing the ratio. So far the results are promising, though it will take at least a week to really know what the outcome will be.

I’m grateful for the knowledge that led me here. By knowing how to pay attention to my body’s signals, I’ve discovered that I may be able to reduce the use of a treatment I detest. But the knowledge gained from listening is so much greater than what’s happening this week. It’s how I discovered that eating anything is my biggest migraine trigger. It has invaluable discoveries over these nearly five years of restricted diets. The diets and food restrictions are incredibly frustrating, but they’re also why I feel so much better. All of this led to the new treatment that’s proving to be quite helpful—a treatment I would have never gone through the enormous trouble to try if I weren’t so convinced of the connection between eating and migraine attacks for me.

Pretending I was OK when I wasn’t seemed to be the right and helpful—really, the only— way to deal with illness. In reality, I was jeopardizing my chance to feel better. If I hadn’t switched tactics, I’d still go to bed each night wondering how I’d get through another day. By learning to notice and honor my body’s symptoms and limitations, I now expect to feel good each day and am disappointed when I don’t. That life-changing shift is astonishing and freeing.

Want to learn how to listen to your body? Sarah Hackley’s guest post from Monday provides helpful guidance. I also wrote about it for Migraine.com in Learning to Listen to Your Body.

Enter to win Sarah’s book! Comment on Sarah’s post or email me at kerrie[at]thedailyheadache[dot]com by11:59 p.m. Pacific on Friday, September 23.

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Sarah Hackley: Staying in Tune with the Body When Life Gets Hectic

Happiness with Migraines by Sarah HackleyIn this guest post, Sarah Hackley shares tips for keeping migraine attacks at bay by staying in tune with your body. Sarah is the author of Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide. Win a free copy of her book by leaving a comment on this post or emailing kerrie[at]thedailyheadache[dot]com by 11:59 p.m. Pacific on Friday, September 23. 

Life gets hectic, and there are times when it becomes downright overwhelming. This is particularly true for adult women, who too often feel the pressure to be superwoman. Unfortunately, it is these same women who make up a significant portion of the migraineur demographic, and it is these overwhelming times that are most likely to push us into an escalating series of migraine attacks. One way to help combat this cycle is to stay in tune with our bodies.

What does that mean, exactly? What does it look like?

Being in tune with our bodies is largely about self-trust. Trusting our body to tell us what it needs, and trusting ourselves to hear those messages, understand them, and respond to them. Our bodies will always do their jobs. They will send those messages. That’s what bodies do. It is up to our minds to do the rest.

Cultivating the body awareness needed to respond appropriately to our bodies takes time and attention, but it is something we can all do using a variety of methods, exercises, and intuitions. One great exercise for beginners involves a kind of mindful meditation known as a body scan.

For the body scan, position yourself flat on your back, either on the floor, your bed, or a mat – whatever feels best and most natural to you. Then, gently close your eyes and breathe. Once you are present in the moment, move your attention to your feet, noticing any sensations in the toes, the heels, the soles, the ankles, and the tops of your feet. Invite curiosity to the practice, as if you are paying attention to these sensations for the first time.

Once you are sure you have experienced each sensation in your feet, move your attentions slowly up to your calves, attending to each part and sensation in the same manner. From there, move to your thighs, then your hips, then your torso, then your arms, and finally your neck and head. This exercise can take anywhere from three minutes to half-an-hour, depending on your personal preferences. When you are finished scanning, remain still and return to your breath. Finally, open your eyes, and slowly bring yourself to a sitting position.

Regular practice of this technique will strengthen the bond between your mind and your body, thereby ensuring you notice the body’s quieter messages. This gives you the tools necessary to act to protect yourself before major problems arise. Other ways to keep in tune with the body throughout the day:

  • Be mindful of any aches and pains that crop up and try to ease them with self-message or gentle stretching.
  • Watch your posture, and realign when you start to slump or hurt.
  • Pay attention to your energy levels, especially peaks and slumps, to see if you can uncover a daily cycle to work within (also ask yourself what foods or activities, if anything, may be contributing to that cycle).
  • Go to bed when you are tired and eat when you are hungry, without regard for the clock.

Deep body awareness takes time, but tuning in at any level will dramatically improve the connection between mind and body, which will help prevent small problems from becoming large ones. This will also help you receive your body’s subtle clues that a migraine attack is coming on, hopefully well before any of the overt signals make themselves known. And advance notice always makes prevention and treatment easier – especially in the midst of hectic times.   

For additional self-care tips on how to live well – and joyfully – with migraine, please check out Finding Happiness with Migraines: A Do It Yourself Guide by Absolute Love Publishing.

To keep up with and reach out to Sarah directly, here’s where to find her on social media:

Win a free copy of Sarah’s book by leaving a comment on this post or emailing kerrie[at]thedailyheadache[dot]com by 11:59 p.m. Pacific on Friday, September 23.

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Buddhist Teachings for Pain Management

This is the sixth and final post in a series exploring the topics covered in the book You Are Not Your Pain*. See You Are Not Your Pain: An Introduction to learn more.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a secular approach that applies the Buddhist principle of mindfulness to pain, illness, and stress. The more I learned about mindfulness, the more curious I became about Buddhism. Many Buddhist practices can help with managing pain and illness. Vidyamala talks about the ones that she employs regularly. (If you want even more, How to Be Sick* by Toni Bernhard is a treasure trove.)

Kerrie Smyres: What other Buddhist teachings do you find helpful in managing chronic pain?

Vidyamala Burch: Along with mindfulness, loving kindness and compassion are other qualities that come from Buddhist teachings. Both mindfulness and loving kindness are integral to how I manage my pain and to all of Breathworks’ pain management programmes in “You Are Not Your Pain.”

Through Breathworks’ pain management programmes, we guide people very, very gently and with loving kindness – metaphorically holding someone’s hand – to help them move closer to what is actually happening in their bodies.

Loving kindness is about having a response to yourself that you would naturally have to a loved one who is hurting, so for example if your child fell over it’s completely instinctive to scoop that child up to comfort with love and tenderness. So, try and turn that instinctive emotional response back on to yourself; it is basically gentleness and tenderness and acknowledgement of the feeling of sorrow of what it’s like to live in a body that hurts. It’s not an easy thing. I often think one of the most heroic things that you can do in life is to inhabit a body that hurts.

In Buddhism mindfulness and loving kindness are articulated in some key Buddhist texts. The main one on mindfulness is the Satipatthana Sutta and this provides a theoretical basis for what we teach. The Brahma Viharas is a key teaching on loving kindness. The Salattha Sutta describes primary and secondary suffering very well. So all these are implicit in my approach to living with pain and illness.

*Amazon affiliate link

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Mindfulness for Managing Non-Pain Symptoms

This is the fifth post in a series exploring the topics covered in the book You Are Not Your Pain [Amazon affiliate link]. See You Are Not Your Pain: An Introduction to learn more.

You Are Not Your Pain is, unsurprisingly, focused on pain. But the concepts in the book, which are those of mindfulness-based stress reduction, can apply to all sorts of physical symptoms (and to life well beyond illness). In the book, Vidyamala Burch mentioned that she uses mindfulness to reduce fatigue. While I employ mindfulness for managing pain—and in all other aspects of my life—I had never tried to experience fatigue mindfully. I was so intrigued that I asked Vidyamala to explain. 

Kerrie Smyres: I saw in an interview that you used to have severe fatigue. Did your fatigue decrease as part of your mindfulness practice?

Vidyamala Burch: Yes my fatigue has massively decreased over the years in which I have practised mindfulness and compassion. Really to a remarkable degree. I now have a lot of energy, in fact more than a lot of my able bodied friends! This is partly because of what I have learned about myself through meditation and awareness. There is so much less inner conflict. Also, I have learned to manage my energy in daily life much better through pacing myself. I used to go at things hammer and tongs and then have a big flare up, but I am now more balanced in my approach. I use the slogan “take a break BEFORE you need it” rather than keeping going at an activity until I am completely shattered. That’s made a big difference.

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Migraine Medication Detox, Week Two: Transition Period

migraine medication detox“This too shall pass.” Those words provide immense comfort when my migraine attacks are severe and disabling. They have carried me through many difficult years. As encouraging as this phrase can be, there’s a flipside to it: the difficult, trying times in life pass, but so do the pleasurable ones we never want to end. “This too shall pass” means that everything passes.

When I had migraine attacks last Sunday and Monday after having a remarkable few days, I was too busy panicking to remind myself that they would pass. My mind churned on my most fear-filled thoughts: What if my new treatment isn’t working? What if it’s making me feel worse? What if I will never again feel as good as I did these last few days?

Although I was 100% sure I was overreacting, that did nothing to assuage my fears. My worry settled a bit on Tuesday after I stopped the oxytocin (which was definitely a migraine trigger for me), but I continued to fret.

I didn’t remember that this too shall pass until Wednesday. That’s when I finally realized that detoxing from medication overuse headache and trying new meds mean I’m in a transition period. That should have been obvious, but I was so caught up in excitement—and then the fear—for the future that I wasn’t paying attention to the present. I’d forgotten that progress is not linear.

“Transition period” became a mantra of sorts in the last week. When I start to panic, I remind myself that I could still be detoxing from my meds (especially since I gave in to Amerge last Monday) and that the effects of my new treatment tends to build over months. Even more turbulence comes from experimenting with new treatments (Compazine, oxytocin, and some new-to-me preventives), changes in my meal frequency, and introducing new foods. I still have a ton of variables to work out. “Transition period” is now shorthand to remind myself that it will take time to sort out all these confounding factors.

It’s kind of an odd mantra, but I like its hopefulness. It tells me that I’m on my way to somewhere new, somewhere that could be great. (It could also be awful, but I’m not dwelling on that.) This too shall pass. I have no idea where I’ll be when it does. That’s a little scary, but it’s mostly exciting.

Learn more about my migraine medication detox: