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Why I’m Doing Better, Part 2

I’ve changed my promised follow-up to Why I’m Doing Better, Part 1 because the format felt wrong. I have plenty to write about the strategies that have made me feel better, but I want to do so in descriptive individual posts instead of a couple all-about-me lists. I think my new approach has far more value to you than my original plan. Expect posts on exercise, meditation, finding my “third space,” lifestyle changes (like diet and sleep), and special glasses. I’ll let you know when a post is related to my improved health.

I’ve never been more aware that there’s no one solution to chronic migraine. It has taken an assemblage of treatments and tweaks for me to feel better. The tendency is to search for one total treatment, but, much like diabetes, migraine is an illness that has to be managed on many fronts.

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Treating Pain With Meditation

I’ve dabbled in mindfulness meditation as a pain reduction strategy for a few years. A study released in April, which showed significant reduction in pain intensity and “unpleasantness” with meditation, spurred me to undertake a regular practice.

“This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

“We found a big effect about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent.” [emphasis mine]

I checked meditation CDs out of the library and found podcasts of guided meditations as well as talks given at meditation centers. I listen to an hour or two of talks each day and try to spend at least 30 minutes in active meditation. I’d say I the most relief I’ve experienced is about a 1 percent reduction in pain intensity and unpleasantness.

In the study, the pain was induced by a device heating a portion of the participants’ skin to 120 degrees. I have to wonder if the results only apply to acute, not chronic, pain.

I wish my results were better. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also to provide general support to the practice of meditation. Though it doesn’t directly improve my pain, I do feel calmer overall. I enjoy the practice and will continue with it.

Have you had success controlling pain through meditation, mindfulness, or otherwise?

Recommended guided meditation CDs:

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Clinical Trials for Treating All Sorts of Headache Disorders

ClinicalTrials.gov is the place to go if you’ve considered participating in a clinical trial for your headache disorder, These are just the latest in 142 headache studies recruiting participants or will be recruiting soon.

Nearly every headache disorder is represented: cluster, tension-type, post-traumatic, migraine, cervicogenic, lumbar-puncture, medication overuse (rebound)…. Treatments range from medication and surgery to diet, coping skills training, relaxation, meditation, yoga, exercise… Again the list goes on.

The diverse collection of current studies include:

Even if you’re not interested in any of these studies, checking the government’s clinical database regularly may turn up something new that works for you. Searching for “headache” gets the most results, but you can also search by specific headache type. For example, there are 74 active studies on migraine and seven on cluster headaches.

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Mindfulness & Meditation: An Introduction

Finally! Here’s an explanation of mindfulness meditation and the practice of mindfulness in general. The post is long but worth sticking with. (I think so at least!)

Mindfulness = Paying Attention
Mindfulness is captured by simple terms:

  • Paying attention
  • Being, not doing
  • Present moment awareness
  • Being “here”

Easy ideas, complicated concepts. The ubiquity of multitasking is an excellent example of the challenges. Home, work, play, school, friends, family… There’s so much to think about and it all fights for attention. With our minds everywhere at once, they are often far from our actual lives.

The UCSD Center for Mindfulness, part of the medical school’s psychiatry department, gives this definition:

[Mindfulness] is a quality, which human beings already have, but they have usually not been advised that they have it, that it is valuable, or that it can be cultivated. Mindfulness is the awareness that is not thinking (but that which is aware of thinking, as well as aware of each of the other ways we experience the sensory world, i.e., seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling through the body).

Mindfulness is non-judgmental and open-hearted (friendly and inviting of whatever arises in awareness). It is cultivated by paying attention on purpose, deeply, and without judgment to whatever arises in the present moment, either inside or outside of us. By intentionally practicing mindfulness, deliberately paying more careful moment-to-moment attention, individuals can live more fully and less on “automatic pilot,” thus, being more present for their own lives.

How is mindfulness part of meditation?
Meditation can be broken into two basic categories: Concentration and mindfulness. Until my recent introduction to mindfulness, I’d always thought of meditation as concentrating on clearing one’s mind or focusing on a narrow idea. To me, mindfulness seems the opposite.

What I love about Western medicine’s approach to mindfulness meditation is the focus on becoming aware of your body, to be rooted in what you are experiencing. Having felt that my body has “betrayed” by giving me migraine and chronic daily headache, I am amazed by all the good it does.

That said, mindfulness meditation also involves paying attention to negative sensations (i.e. pain). I’ve long been a fan of burying my nose in a book to distract myself. Paying attention to the pain, nausea and vertigo is indescribably difficult. I get frustrated nearly every time. Tears and yelling are not uncommon. But I keep practicing and, like with any knew skill, it becomes a little easier each time.

This approach fully acknowledges that the mind wanders. In fact, one of the CDs I use says that the nature of the mind is to wander. Thinking of it this way makes it easier to let the thoughts go and return to the practice. There’s a non-judgmental quality to it and one that I, with practice, am learning to accept.

Think it’s not for you? Think again.
If I can do it, anyone can. Seriously. I have only be involved with it for two months, but my health has already benefited. The definition I provide from the UCSD Center for Mindfulness is rather academic, but my experience hasn’t been. You’ve probably caught on by now that practice is key. I started with, and still use, a 20-minute CD segment. I feel my body relax as I progress and am always surprised when it ends.

The point of all this is not “enlightenment,” but better health. I now notice when I start to feel flushed, which is usually the beginning of a crash. Sometimes I push, but sometimes I stop. In the airport recently, the rigmarole, crowds and general feeling of being rushed got to me. All I did was sit down and breathe and felt better within 10 minutes. I also thought of a small step I could take to ensure I stayed calm: I could pre-board. Boy, did that help.

Want to join me?
I already know that mindfulness will become an integral part of my treatment. As such, it will likely become a main topic on The Daily Headache. You can follow along with my experience and may even want to join me. I’d love to get a dialog going where we can learn from each other.

Resources
I’ve found some websites with good introductions to mindfulness and mindfulness meditation. Some get kind of abstract and spiritual sounding, but try to think of how it can apply to your health and self-care. Following links about mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may be helpful.

For books, I recommend starting with Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. Basically a book version of UMass’s Stress Reduction Clinic’s program, it takes a strong Western approach. It reads like the self-help book it is, yet has great information. You’ll help support The Daily Headache if you buy it through the link above or you can probably get it at your library.

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Stress, Complaining & Coping (or Trying to Keep My Life Together)

I got home a week ago and have been doing poorly since Saturday. I felt great (compared to usual) when I was in Phoenix but, true to my away-from-home pattern, crashed when I returned home.

Meditating was a fantastic tool when I was in Phoenix. When I felt nausea or a meltdown coming on, I’d meditate with my trusty eye pillow on and be good to go in 30 minutes (90 minutes when I nodded off). Now the nausea simply won’t go away and relaxation is a joke. I can tell my baseline stress level is higher than it was in Phoenix. I fight to meditate, which only makes me more tense.

What’s that you say? Isn’t being at my parents’ house while my dad is sick and my mom is completely overwhelmed more stressful than being at home? I do love to be contradictory. I was actually helping and could see how everyone was really doing, not far away wondering what is really going on. Besides, the four of us had fun and laughed a lot. In my complicated way, it was less anxiety-provoking than living my normal normal life that I can’t keep up with.

I feel like I could mimic a vacation state if I got clutter and meals under some semblance of control. This amounts to thinking of what I should do — or could do if I were able. Hardly a good way to relax.

I have felt too bad and too drugged to blog. As I write I remember yet again that letting the words flow from my fingers is the best way for me to think. I finally believe myself when I say I’m very sick and my life is hard right now. That’s a big step.

I can usually put a positive twist on my struggles without thinking about it. I’ve had to search lately. Today I’m relying on the wisdom of mindfulness meditation teacher: “As long as you’re breathing, there’s more right than wrong with you.”