What My History With Migraines Taught Me About Coping With Adversity

I've learned to grow my resilience through acceptance, openness, and hope.

Chainarong06/ Shutterstock
Chainarong06/ Shutterstock

I have experienced chronic migraines for over five years. This means being in near constant pain: waking up, showering, commuting, working, eating, socializing — even sleeping (or rather, not sleeping) has had the opposite of a rose-colored tint for 1,900 days and counting. During this time, I have tried many coping strategies, including but not limited to denial, self-contempt, mourning, and eventually acceptance and openness.

This essay presents my top three insights for coping with not just migraines, but any type of long-term adversity. I hope it can inspire and support others who feel overwhelmed, as well as their loved ones. In the new realities of COVID-19, this becomes widely applicable, as we are collectively living through increased uncertainty, new limitations, and heightened stress.

With chronic migraines, everything becomes harder to do. I feel diminished, less like myself, or that there is less of me to go around. Getting out of bed, experiencing sensory overload during grocery shopping, and being overwhelmed by social interactions are daily struggles. Anything requiring deep thought, like creative problem-solving feels like seeing with one eye – it works, but there is no depth. Managing through a workday gradually blurs my already limited mental vision. Before learning to cope with migraines, I entered into a vicious cycle that escalated even beyond these immediate cognitive limitations.

From denial to acceptance

In the movie Inside Out, eleven-year-old Riley has five governing emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. When Sadness and Joy go missing, Anger, Fear, and Disgust are left in charge of the brain. This movie dynamic explained teenage moodiness, but it is also remarkably similar to my experience with chronic migraines.

At first, I was in denial of my condition; I told myself that everything would soon be fine. Any Sadness about the loss of my mind was unacceptable. Through Anger, I forced myself to appear in control: competent and capable. I inadvertently came across as stubborn, impatient, or arrogant. Conversations became drained of Joy, instead they became something to be managed and analyzed. Fear followed suit, as I worried that people would consider me unworthy, and that I would never regain my full capacity.

Finally, Disgust accompanied embarrassment, guilt, and shame because of difficult interactions or feedback at work, or because I was feeling insufficient at home. Desperate to feel cognitively capable, I took up chess on my phone because I associated playing it with being smart. This and other similar activities only fatigued me to my breaking point. I was exhausted, resigned, and hopeless.

In this fractured state of mind, I started therapy. This eventually helped me realize my first coping insight, which was also the most difficult to accept: My mind was lost, and would never be the same. Anger, fear, shame, denial, and self-contempt all brought me further from my past self, and could never bring back what once was. This insight also applies to current events: The global pandemic means we cannot continue as before, and some things will never be the same.

From hiding to sharing

Migraines, stress, and other conditions impact sufferers and those around them. I allowed anger and fear to dictate my actions for a long time, even with those closest to me. If someone asked how I was doing, I would say, “Fine, getting better!” At the same time, irritability and fatigue pushed colleagues away, and made it harder to maintain friendships.

Because I did not share it, for a while even my wife was unaware that I suffered from migraines every day. More importantly, as I have had to accept my limitations, so has she. This holds especially for bad days when my capacity nears zero, and laundry, dishes, and dog hair all pile up in our home.

My second coping insight was that when I don’t communicate, my limitations from my migraines cause misunderstandings and relationship strain. On the other hand, people responded with understanding once I shared my experiences. We owe it to ourselves and each other to be open about our challenges and limitations. Otherwise, we inadvertently push our stress onto friends, family, and colleagues — leaving them bewildered and concerned.

Building resilience through hope

My final coping insight builds on the first two: Acceptance and openness become sustainable when supported by hope that our situation can improve. I am not suggesting blind faith that everything will fix itself tomorrow — rather, I’m suggesting hope that accepts temporary setbacks before eventual resolution. This applies equally to chronic migraines as to our current society-wide lockdown.

When we bottle our stress and soldier on as if nothing is different, we break. I know, because I did. On the other hand, accepting our limitations and sharing them with others while gradually working towards a better future allow us to bend, adapting when we are challenged. For me this helps retain a sense of self that is separate from the physical pain and feelings of insufficiency and shame. I hope you can too.

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