Pain is often a terrible fact of life when you live with migraine. The suffering it brings can feel as bad as the pain itself. The link between migraine pain and suffering feels so hardwired that people with migraine are commonly known as “migraine sufferers.”
And yet, a wise philosophical expression disputes that point of view. It goes like this: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
The field of psychology roundly agrees with that wisdom. That’s because pain and suffering are two different things. One happens largely in your body. The other happens largely in your mind. And while the physical pain of migraine can be unavoidable, your mental and emotional reactions–the elements of suffering–are actually within your control. You can ease your suffering with migraine by training your brain to calm its response to pain.
Pain Vs. Suffering
First, let’s define what we mean by “pain” and “suffering.”
Pain is an unpleasant physical sensation sparked by an activation of the pain pathways in the nervous system. It’s a message from the body that something is wrong. Not everyone who receives the same pain stimuli will have the same response — some bodies overreact and some under-react — which can be affected, to some degree, by our minds. For example, think of an injured soldier who must escape the battlefield and ignores his pain.
Suffering is the emotional, behavioral, or thought consequences of the physical pain. It often leads to negative or unhelpful responses, which increases the distress of the original pain. For example, if you get slapped in the face, the physical pain will fade. But when you later think about getting slapped in the face, it may generate feelings of anger, confusion, and outrage: the suffering.
Pain can create suffering through negative thinking and self-talk. Suffering has a powerful effect on the mind and how we experience our world.
- Negative thinking and self-talk are the voices in your head telling you the pain is unfair; I’ve drawn the short straw in life; I’m weak; I’m making a bigger deal of it than I should; if only I were stronger, more capable, or tougher my life would be better.
- This thinking is associated with decreased motivation, greater feelings of helplessness, and depression.
- Brain imaging studies have shown that negative mindsets light up the brain’s pain centers, amplifying the perception of pain.
Learn to Live Without Suffering
The first step to reduce your suffering is to stop fighting your pain. It may seem counter-intuitive, but your willingness to submit to your body’s pain signals, and not struggle with them, will give you some ease.
Suffering begins with negative self-talk. When you tell yourself that pain is unacceptable or wrong or intolerable, however valiant your motivations, it puts you in opposition to your body. You’re in a tug of war with the pain. You brace, struggle and hold your breath, going into fight-or-flight mode. That war not only drains you of emotional and physical energy, it makes pain worse.
However, if you choose to accept the pain, you are dropping the tug-of-war rope. You are choosing to calmly walk away from an unwinnable contest. The idea is to go from being someone who suffers pain to someone who has pain, understands and accepts that fact, and chooses to channel their energy into controlling their disease. This mindset acts as a buffer to pain and anxiety. It allows you to recognize, without self-criticism, that while the coming migraine attack will take a lot out of you, your resilience will get you through once again.
Start breaking the negative self-talk habit with these steps:
- Notice it’s happening. First, simply identify that you are generating negative self-talk in the first place. This may be harder than it sounds. These types of messages are often the automatic thoughts that spin in the background of your mind, so notice them. For example, let’s say your negative thought is “I’m weak.”
- Identify what triggered the negative thought. Was it another emotion? A self-shaming thought? A behavior? Tracing the origins of your thought will give you more insight. In this case, perhaps the trigger for the thought “I’m weak” was feeling a migraine attack coming on.
- Neutrally analyze its truth. Imagine yourself as an impartial judge and evaluate the evidence for the negative thought. You will often discover that we make self-judgments and decisions based on inaccurate thoughts. You’d ask, “Why would someone accuse a person with a chronic disease as weak?” It doesn’t make sense. In fact, this person is strong and worthy of compassion. So show that to yourself.
A positive mindset makes a difference in how we experience pain. It replaces the feelings of fear, desperation and hopelessness that can come with pain with a more productive attitude, reducing suffering and even helping to turn the volume down on pain. Being positive and self-compassionate can also lead to proactive impulses that can reduce pain: You might seek and find the best treatment plan for relief, or build self-care time into your life.
However, negative thinking can be a tough habit to break, especially when you’re hurting. Remember, brain training takes practice until it becomes second nature. Biofeedback, meditation and talk therapy are all proven techniques that work. Ask your physician to recommend providers so you can break the negative habit and free yourself from suffering.