Emotional stress takes a toll on everyone. For people with migraine, though, it predictably leads to a specific result: more migraine attacks. That’s why for people with migraine, learning healthy ways to cope with stress, trauma, and powerful emotions is a priority. To do that, it’s invaluable to have support and guidance in the form of a trained and licensed therapist. Studies show psychological help with talk therapy is highly effective in treating migraine, reducing headaches anywhere from 20% to 67%.
Now, some people might balk at the idea that treating the mind can help heal the body. Some may even feel insulted by the suggestion, as though it minimizes your migraine disease, or implies that your problem is “all in your head.” That’s just not true; your migraine is entirely real. Talk therapy techniques help the migraine brain for two good reasons:
- Because stress is a known trigger of headaches. Reducing stress also reduces the severity and frequency of migraine.
- Because migraine can cause depression. Life with migraine disorder can leave people feeling helpless, frustrated, anxious, and depressed, which lowers your ability to tolerate pain and stress, worsening your migraine condition.
The Migraine Brain In Talk Therapy
In the emotional “safe space” a therapist creates, free of judgment or hurt, we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable. In so doing, we open ourselves up to learning practical coping skills that help with migraine, including:
- How to regulate emotions. The usual chain of events goes like this: Stress leads you to feel powerful negative emotions, like frustration, fear, anger, or shame. Your body, perceiving a threat, sets off a chemical cascade called the “fight or flight response” that, due to the sensitivity of the migraine brain, can set off or perpetuate headache. However, you can interrupt that cycle. If you can learn to perceive negative emotions as less of a threat — regarding them with neutrality or even compassion when they arise — it dampens your fight or flight response.
- How to control your migraine suffering. Pain is part of the human condition, but our response to that pain — our suffering — is within our control. By learning not to fear difficult emotions, but rather allowing them to happen without reacting strongly, you train your brain to reduce your level of suffering during a migraine attack. Talk therapy is a great place to learn these skills and build on existing practices of mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation.
- How to create a flexible pace for your life. People with migraine often deplete themselves when they’re feeling well in order to make up for lost time, then suffer the effects of that exhaustion. That “boom or bust” approach doesn’t work in the long run. Figuring out flexible pacing for your migraine life is crucial, so you can dole out your energy in ways that are both impactful and also sustainable.
Opening Pandora’s Box Together
Talk therapy can sometimes feel intense, especially when we aren’t accustomed to examining our feelings or showing ourselves compassion. It doesn’t always feel good in the beginning, because unresolved issues and long-suppressed emotions are the things that rise to the surface first. When that happens:
- Don’t panic. This first gush of powerful feelings has been called “backdraft” by the researcher Kristin Neff, likening it to a room filled with superheated gas but no oxygen to burn — until someone throws open a window, creating a fiery explosion. Know that this initial burst of emotion is part of the process.
- Don’t feel guilty about your feelings, or that you’ve left them unexamined until now. Part of coping with migraine means that you’ve been in survival mode, and by necessity have been compartmentalizing — putting difficult things into a mental box — in order to get through each day, without even realizing it. Thank yourself for having done so. When you acknowledge that process is no longer serving you, or holding you back, give yourself permission to open that box.
- Do know that this phase doesn’t last. Ride the wave to calmer seas ahead, where you’ll be that much closer to some well-deserved relief.
Getting talk therapy can be an important step toward managing your migraine. Wondering how to find the right therapist for you? Read our expert Q&A, “How To Find a Therapist to Reduce Migraine.”