It’s been a long time since a migraine destroyed my mood like it did Tuesday. It was a scary reminder of the dark thoughts that accompany migraine mood changes.
I was fiddling with a picture for a post and minor frustrations had me nearly in tears. Hart fixed the problem while I sat beside him, closed my eyes and took deep breaths. My mind jumped from Photoshop to “Why can’t I get this diet figured out. What am I supposed to do when a food is OK on one day and then not the next time in the rotation? How am I supposed to eat anything? What if I don’t get it sorted out and the migraines come back full force? I don’t want to do that again.”
As my mind spiraled in fear, I reminded myself to not believe everything I think. Those thoughts I was having? They aren’t Truth, nor do they represent what I believe most of the time. I told myself, “This is migraine. This is migraine. This is migraine. This is not me.” Within minutes of remembering the critical distinction between me and migraine, all the anxiety and frustration melted away.
Then I was amazed at how far I’ve come. When a migraine hijacked my mood even a couple years ago, I’d respond by dwelling on every dark thought that crossed my mind. Now I know to shut down those ruminations because they hurt far more than they help. Realizing I’ve learned to pay diligent attention and respond to all the minute migraine-induced changes (mood and otherwise) fills me with gratitude and pride.
Through much research and work, I’ve made tremendous strides in my physical health. I have worked just as hard at changing the way I react to and cope with migraine. As proud as I am of the first achievement, the latter may be even more meaningful. While my physical improvements may not last (in fact, I’m having all sorts of food issues and averaging two migraines a day right now), I can always rely on the strategies I’ve learned to ease the burden of living with chronic migraine. As the saying goes, I can’t control migraine, but I can control the way I react to it.
I’m on day 11 of a cold that has my brain fog and fatigue at levels equal to my very worst migraine days. The other symptoms aren’t too bad, but I can’t think and I can barely move. The longer it goes on the more tempted I am to freak out —
What’s going on? Is this my new normal? Will this ever go away? Are these migraine symptoms resurfacing? Is the DAO not working as well as it did? Was what I thought was a minor cold the start of chronic fatigue syndrome? Could I have fibromyalgia?
Letting these worries spiral out of control isn’t improving my physical symptoms and it certainly isn’t calming my anxieties. I’m working hard to stay mindful and in the moment. All I know is what I feel right now. I don’t know how I’ll feel next week, tomorrow or even an hour from now.
When the fears take hold, I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths and ask myself what I know: I have fatigue and brain fog right now and for the past 10 days. I have a cold. My head pain and nausea are minimal. I feel better today than I did a few days ago. That’s what I know, everything else is just speculation.
Speculation cannot help me know the future. It cannot, in fact, help me know anything. Rumination is a powerful habit that masquerades as useful and helpful. Instead of being fooled by that deception and getting bogged down by thoughts, I’m practicing being right here, right now. It’s tough. It’s also a tiny bit liberating.
( I hope this unedited missive makes sense. I’ve used all my mental ability to draft this and don’t want to wait to publish it.)
Mindfulness as a tool for coping with depression is often distilled into “thinking your way out” of depression — which angers pretty much anyone who has ever struggled with depression. Mindfulness is more about becoming aware of how negative thoughts build on each other and cause additional emotional pain, then learning how to attend to such thoughts in a way that limits their damage. At least, that’s how it works for me.
Zindel Segal, who wrote The Mindful Way Through Depression and developed the technique of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, explained in a TEDx Talk how mindfulness can be an effective tool for coping with depression and preventing relapse. He also talks about the science behind the approach and research about its application. Here’s his basic description of how it works:
What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t…bring to mind all of the negative associations that for some people can happen very automatically. Instead they can find a different place for standing and working with these feelings, and as a result have much more of an option for selecting a response and influencing what happens next.
Segal’s TEDx Talk is good, but If you’re looking for help with depression and guidance on how to apply mindfulness to cope with it, start with the book. It’s tone is less academic than the TEDx talk and it provides concrete hands-on guidance.
You’re probably tired of hearing me say that I’ve found mindfulness to be an invaluable tool for coping with depression, chronic illness and even migraine attacks.
Like an athlete who knows all the clichés to tell the press, I say all the right things about my recent migraine reprieve. The improvement may not last… I’m taking it day by day… No treatment is guaranteed to work forever… Sometimes I even believe myself.
When my migraine pain hit a level 6 last week, I didn’t panic. I still have migraines most days and even though the pain rarely even hits a 5, I know that more painful migraines could always resurface. I can handle it. For a day. After that level 6 pain was followed by three more days with level 5 pain, I officially freaked out.
Days when level 6 pain is a cause for celebration could come again. (Writing that sentence made my stomach turn.) I got through it before and I will once again. But I really, really, really don’t want to have to.
Last week’s migraines were likely hormonal, so they’re probably not here to stay. This is somewhat reassuring, but I couldn’t rest until the stretch of more severe migraines let up. Even now, after a couple days with little pain, fatigue or brain fog, I’m still more nervous than I was two weeks ago.
It’s not that I’m obsessing over future uncertainties, but I’m wary of making plans. I have some great ideas for TheraSpecs that require a long-term commitment of physical and mental energy. I’m also considering moderating Migraine.com’s forums. There’s no problem with doing either one right now, but what about three months from now? How about next year? Severe daily migraine attacks were the story for so long that it’s hard to believe they won’t return.
I don’t ask for much. I just want work to consistently, keep my household fed and running, and have fun with my loved ones. Having a taste of that life has been so amazing that I’m walking around like someone newly in love. Back to the (true) clichés, I’m grateful for every day, living this life to the fullest, focusing on the now, enjoying life in the moment. But I can’t deny that I will be devastated when (if?) it stops.