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How A Migraine Became My Greatest Teacher

Your body already knows the answer to what you are searching for...

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”Our bodies are apt to be our autobiographies.” – Frank Gillette Burgess

For the last 7 months of lockdown, I faced a daily migraine. Daily! What I have learnt is that you can convince everybody else you are coping just fine, you may even believe it but your body carries a deeper innate knowing and wisdom. It cannot be lied to and the more you ignore it, the louder it gets.

When we went into lockdown in March 2020, it was clearly a stressful period for everyone. I figured as long as I schedule everything that needed to happen into the calendar, I could manage the days and adjust to the new routine of working and schooling my two kids from home.

After two days of hearing myself say ‘But I should be doing this and you should be doing that’,  I realized I needed a new strategy because resisting the situation was not the way forward. Although I had convinced myself that I was able to go with the flow, my body was telling me otherwise.

I had started to develop migraines every morning. It would start with a ‘flickering’, it almost looks like a ball of light through the eyes. Often if I took a simple paracetamol tablet, it would dissipate over a few hours but on some occasions it would escalate. I never got the physical headache where I became nauseous or ill as some people suffer from. What it did do was leave me feeling really fatigued and like I was functioning 5 minutes slower. It forced me to slow down the pace whether I wanted to or not.

The science lab of my life

“The moment you change your perception, is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.” – Dr. Bruce Lipton

I have been a meditator for 6 years and it is something that forms part of my daily routine. Since we went in to lockdown, I start every day with what I call my Power Nour ™ as in ‘Now-Hour’. This includes a 15 minute yoga practice, meditation and journaling. Some days I never got to all three activities but the meditation was a non-negotiable.

The reason I mention this is because I had a daily mindfulness practice to navigate the spiralling thoughts and connect back to myself every morning – and I never check my phone until I’m ready to check in. Despite these efforts to manage the new challenges and channel my stress, the headaches persisted.

My life now became a science experiment – I cut out processed foods, artificial sweetener, anything that wasn’t pure was out. Nothing helped.

I then began to focus in on when they started. They never happened during my Power Nour ™. It was always afterwards but the frustrating thing was there was no consistency. It arrived after journaling or during a work session. It came on weekends even when there was no work.

My husband was convinced it was stress but I told him it couldn’t possibly be. I listed all the reasons why I am blessed and grateful and how I love the work I do. In my mind, it wasn’t justified that stress could trigger the headaches because I was in control of my diary and I was managing my mind through my morning practice.

Mindful breathing

“It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” – Albus Dumbledore, The Philosopher’s Stone

My next route to get to the bottom of this was mastering my breath. I had just read Dan Brules book ‘Just Breathe’ and he mentioned a breath practitioner who works in Johannesburg South Africa (which is where I live) and I thought that’s my solution. I contacted this doctor and we spent 3 months of doing incredible weekly sessions where she taught me specific breathing exercises I can do and we also did some in depth sessions on how I can connect deeper to myself. This was really incredible and I highly recommend it as a practice.

Something profound she taught me was that breathe precedes thought. When you move into a stressed space, your breathe changes and the more awareness you can bring to your breath throughout the day, the more you can move through the day with a calm confidence as opposed to stress and overwhelm.

But…despite my best practice to bring awareness into the breathe and control my breathing, the headaches persisted.

My meditation teacher, Patsy, pointed out to me that I was constantly trying to catch ‘the train to somewhere’. I was always in ‘doing’ mode and had to constantly fill all the hours with productive work where I felt validated for the time spent.

I felt like I was Harry Potter trying to find Platform 9 ¾. The way to platform 9 ¾ is to walk through the wall between platforms 9 and 10. The trick is you can’t think about it too much, you have to look straight ahead and go at it with a bit of a run. I couldn’t find the platform because I was trying too hard. And every single time the headache showed up, it would slow me down and delay my progress and put me under more strain.

The headache personified       

“An emotion is your body’s reaction to your mind”- Eckhart Tolle

Have you ever had to go to a party or function and there was someone you dreaded seeing? You would work yourself up days before the event and became a nervous wreck. Then when you arrived at the function, your mind starts spiraling ‘Are they here? What am I going to say?  The internal chatter would drone on and ruin your entire experience before you even greeted the host.

This is how I came to view the headache. As an unwelcome guest who was raining on my parade. I was terrified of bumping into it every morning. I was on egg shells of what if it comes and I have so much to do today! But of course, it resulted in a head on collision because I had created so much expectation and fear in my mind and body.

My coach suggested I make friends with the headache. I was putting all my energy into worrying if its going to show up and then starting the circling thoughts of how it’s here and why and making it much worse when it did inevitably arrive. How do you make friends with a headache? Send it love, talk to it and make space to understand what it’s trying to tell me instead of ignoring it and avoiding it when it showed up.

I refused to accept it was stress and anxiety related. There were people in far worse off positions than me during Covid and I at least could work and had my family safe with me. My self-talk was that I didn’t deserve to feel any of these emotions so I just deflected it into other areas.

I went for acupuncture in my jaw and I even invested in a new ergonomically better set up for my computer as the chiropractor was convinced it was my posture causing the headaches. I continued the breath work and meditation. But still they persisted.

What’s the real payoff?

“Everything you need to know is within you. Listen. Feel. Trust the body’s wisdom.” – Dan Millman

I watched a MasterClass series on RuPaul and he spoke about how he always used to arrive obnoxiously late for everything. When he reflected on why he was consistently late, he realized that he was addicted to the adrenaline rush it gave him. He had plenty of time leading up to the meeting or event so it wasn’t a time issue. When he made the decision to let go of the payoff of the adrenaline rush, he started to arrive early because the reward of arriving calm and confident far outweighed the payoff of the empty adrenaline rush.

It dawned on me I was addicted to the payoff of the headaches. It became a form of self-sabotage and the habit of fearing it triggered a stress response. When the penny dropped I made a decision to let go of the payoff and that was a huge step forward for me.

I finally caught the train

”There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.” – Friedrich Nietzche

When Harry had to walk through the wall to reach platform 9 ¾, you could see he was quite nervous at the thought of it but he didn’t get caught up in what could go wrong or what if he doesn’t make it. He simply followed the instructions and made it through the wall to the other side. He simply trusted that he would make it and he did.

After months of bumping into the headache every day because I tried too hard to avoid it or over think it, I finally figured out how to ‘walk through the wall’. It was about letting go of the story of the headache. It was about replacing time scarcity for time abundance. It dawned on me the headaches arrived when I placed so much pressure on what I needed to get done in the limited hours available to me before I had to fetch the kids.

I was approaching my work from a place of fear and contraction. The alternative was to walk into the office without placing pressure on myself and get done as much as I could in the time available and have fun doing it. If I never finished the specific output, then that’s ok. I had a proven track record of super efficiency, I had never missed any deadlines and I always delivered on time. I simply needed to replace ‘trying’ for ‘trusting’ and let go of the sense of urgency around my work. The truth is there wasn’t a time deadline, I was creating a false one.

Currency is key

“The part can never be well unless the whole is well.” – Plato

I had to replace the destination of the ‘somewhere’ train I was trying to get onto so urgently. I also had to buy a new kind of ticket. The currency of this train wasn’t money but honesty and self-awareness.

The day I gave myself permission to own and acknowledge my anxiety was the day the headaches lifted. Up to that point, I didn’t feel entitled to my unease, I didn’t feel like I had a right to feel stressed or tense because there were others in a far worse off position than I was.

I let go of the sense of urgency to catch the ‘somewhere ’train. I dropped the limiting belief that if I wasn’t moving, I was falling behind. What I have come to realize is that standing still means that perhaps the right train will stop for me. What I misunderstood was I was already on the train but I felt like it was stationary.

The way to walk through the platform was by breaking the addiction to control and choosing happiness – irrespective of what I have or haven’t yet achieved. I replaced the fear of the headache with the acceptance that life is going to happen whether I control it or not.

Make your mess your message

“I was once afraid of people saying “Who does she think she is? Now I have the courage to stand and say, “This is who I am.” Oprah Winfrey

My science lab allowed me to conduct many experiments to get to the bottom of the root cause of my headaches. There is one clear diagnosis – it was all me. It had nothing to do with food or posture. It came down to the fact that I refused to acknowledge my feelings and I placed a huge amount of stress on myself.

William Ury, author of ‘Getting to Yes with Yourself’ provides a great strategy to dealing with these triggers and emotions. He says ‘Imagine sitting at a kitchen table. As each familiar thought or emotion such as anxiety or fear, shame or pride shows up, I offer it an imaginary seat. I have learned to welcome all customers, no one excluded. I seek to treat them as the old friends or acquaintances that they are. As the kitchen table fills up, I listen to the free flowing conversation of feelings and thoughts because naming them neutralizes their effect on you and helps you to maintain your state of balance and calm. As soon as you name the character in the play, you distance yourself from him or her.

This simple practice of putting a little space around our thoughts and emotions enables us to experience them with a detachment that frees us from the compulsion to act them out”.

Conclusion

“You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” Eckhart Tolle

The migraine has been my greatest teacher and it became a journey of true self-discovery and I have grown significantly as a result of it. One of most significant lessons I had to master through this process was that the more you let go of control, the more control you have.

You can’t outrun yourself, your body knows and will remind you daily until you pay attention to it. It won’t let you lie to yourself and is incredibly forgiving the moment you surrender your truth to it.

When your body reaches out to you, extend an olive branch of compassion to yourself and don’t judge any feelings or how you insist things ‘should’ be.

Your greatest setback and obstacle is always where the lesson lives. Instead of shaming it, name it and it loses all power over you.

Here’s to hearing the message,

Warm wishes

Lori

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