Coping, Mental Health

Longterm Stress Reduction

99.5% of people who have seen a doctor about migraines or headaches have been told to reduce stress. I made up that statistic, but I bet it’s not far off.

Google “ways to reduce stress” and you’ll get nearly 3 million hits. Most recommendations are mildly effective band-aids. Changing how you react in the moment or trying to slow yourself down when you’re already worked up are vital skills, but living a calmer life overall is the only true solution.

Zenhabits takes this approach in 12 Ideas for Establishing a Calming Routine. The recommended daily rituals go a long way toward longterm stress reduction. Among the 12 recommendations include:

  • Enjoy a quiet cup of tea or coffee each morning. I sit at the kitchen table and look at our ugly patio. Normally the current state of the patio distresses me, but in the mornings I simply enjoy the sun streaming through the windows.
  • Devote a few minutes to think about what and who you are grateful for. A bipolar chronic headache sufferer mentioned in a forum that she does this. The small ritual has made her happier and keeps her from being bogged down by anger and self-pity over her illnesses.
  • Have a real, honest conversation with a loved one.

I’m taking bite-size pieces of Zenhabits’ suggestions to see if calm down my life. I’ve quieted my frazzled self a lot in the last two years, but there’s always room to relax more.

Do you have any soothing rituals?

Community, Coping

Make More Time for Yourself

So many headache sufferers overflow with guilt — their houses are messy, their kids don’t eat decent dinners, friends and family can’t depend on them, and so on. Making taking care of yourself a priority is tough with all this self-reproach. But doing so is absolutely necessary with an illness that can be exacerbated by stress.

Taking time for yourself will you feel better emotionally and, quite likely, physically. Symptoms often ease up the better you sleep, eat and laugh. This, in turn, frees you to do more of what you want to do, like playing with your kids or spending time with friends.

Taking care of yourself is hard to learn how to do, especially for women. Jenni from ChronicBabe shares 10 tips to make life a little easier — tricks that are helpful for women and men alike.

I’m as guilty as the next person of shorting myself, so I’m trying some of Jenni’s tips. My favorite so far is the kitchen timer trick. I will dedicate some “me time” this afternoon to getting my free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone.


Kitchen-Based Medicine

Instead of letting fibromyalgia force her out of the kitchen, Jennifer Hess revamped her approach, making cooking and eating a medicine that treats her physically and mentally. In her Chronic in the Kitchen series on ChronicBabe, she kindly shares lessons that she’s learned and some delicious recipes.

Jennifer broke the recipe-following rules when she developed her
recipes — follow her lead! If an ingredient is a known trigger for
you, make a substitution. Black bean soup made with garbanzo beans?
Chives instead of onions? The first few incarnations may be strange,
but you’ll eventually get a recipe that’s tasty and doesn’t invoke pain.

Avoiding Sausage Headaches
Two of Jennifer’s recipes use sausage, which can spell trouble for people with headache. Because it’s so tasty and easy to use, I’ve searched far and wide for sausage that doesn’t trigger headaches. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Always check the labels and try to avoid varieties with nitrates or any form of MSG. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Wild Oats all carry brands that fit the criteria or come really close. Many stores in the Safeway family (which includes Von’s, Dominick’s, Randalls, Tom Thumb, Genuardi’s and Carrs) also carry some varieties.

Brands that taste good and aren’t filled with junk include Applegate Farms, Cantella’s, Gerhard’s and Organic Prairie. Again, check the labels. One variety of one brand might be fine, but another sausage by the same company may contain MSG.

Also, a little bit of a “bad” additive might not cause problems for you. Try it out when you feel brave.

Coping, Diet, Exercise, Triggers

Self-Care or Alternative Medicine?

I’ve blogged a lot about meds and medical devices, but haven’t really discussed “alternative” therapies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that none of the alternative treatments that I have tried have worked for me, so I don’t think to recommend them. The more important reason is that much of the advice of alternative practitioners is what I think of as simply taking care of myself. I do employ many of the strategies of alternative medicine; I just don’t think of them as alternative.

The non-alternative alternative therapies that I try to follow:

Eat simply prepared produce and meat
Frozen veggies make this much easier and Penzeys Spices make it tastier; both make preparation a snap. I also eat a lot of organic produce and organic free-range meat. Living in the northwest give me an advantage with this; organic is easy to come by and isn’t outrageously expensive.

Avoid inhaling potentially harmful chemicals or substances
Since most artificial scents or offensive odors trigger headaches for me, this is pretty easy. Most of my cleaning products are homemade or from Seventh Generation and candles are beeswax or soy. And, as I’ve already complained, I am careful to find home furnishings that don’t off-gas much.

Avoid potentially harmful food additives
Avoid all forms of MSG, nitrates, nitrites, sulfates, sulfites, and artificial sweeteners, flavorings or colorings. This means skipping almost all convenience foods, sauces and dressings.

Exercise and relax
My beloved yoga is out, but I try to take a short walk every day, even if it is just to my favorite coffeehouse (.8 miles round trip!). Meditation is beyond my grasp, but I do try to lie down, breathe deeply and relax all my muscles for about 10 minutes each day. This is usually when I lie down to go to sleep, but I figure every little bit counts.

Use aromatherapy
Maybe essential oils help my headaches, maybe not, but I love smelling lavender, mint and orange. I smell them straight from the bottle, rub them on my temples, burn them with a candle or put them in a spray bottle with alcohol (is that a harmful-to-inhale substance?) and use them as air fresheners.

Don’t mistake me for a whole health goody goody. These are all steps I try to do, which means that I do them most of the time unless I want to go out for dinner, get my shower really clean, take advantage of high energy days or be lazy. But I do feel better when I follow the “rules.” The days I give in to reading a book and eating cookie dough all day are indulgences that I pay for with more headaches.

(P.S. Many of the foods and products I mention are more expensive than conventional varieties. I stock up on frozen vegetables when they are on sale, burn fewer candles than I used to, and remind myself that meds are expensive too.)