How Lifestyle Changes Helped Sarah’s Migraine
It took Sarah Ogden seven years, several doctors, and 40 medications before she finally got the migraine advice that would change her life.
She was in the office of a headache specialist, awaiting a new opinion. Chronic migraine had steadily whittled away Sarah’s health, despite her best efforts, leaving her housebound and miserable. Still, she clung to hope for a medical miracle. Instead, the new headache specialist said something that floored her.
“I have a question,” he asked Sarah. “If you’ve tried forty medicines already and they haven’t worked––what makes you think a forty-first would work?’”
Stunned, Sarah listened as the doctor suggested that she should expand her migraine treatment plan in a different, non-pharmaceutical direction: by engaging in healthy habits shown to improve migraine management, such as exercise, nutrition and meditation.
“I was apprehensive,” Sarah admits. Inwardly she also scoffed a bit. How could some sit-ups and a few oms succeed where powerful medications had fallen short? But she was determined to follow through, for one reason. “I was desperate,” she says. “Nothing was working for me, and I felt like this was my last shot.”
Searching for a “Cure”
When Sarah was diagnosed with chronic migraine in 2009, she was a 31-year old go-getter living and working in Washington DC. She had ambition, a “go big or go home” attitude, and knew how to stand up to a challenge, including having battled rheumatoid arthritis as a kid. But as Sarah’s migraine worsened, her life deteriorated. She had attacks that lasted three months, requiring hospitalization and long sick leaves from her job in government affairs. She devoted her energies to seeking out solutions. Nonetheless, by 2012 Sarah’s disease had progressed to the point where she could barely function. She moved back home with her parents in Reading, Pennsylvania.
“I had so much head pain and nausea that I rarely did anything but lie on the couch,” remembers Sarah of the following three years. She anxiously churned through medicines, diets and devices to combat migraine. Nothing seemed to work. Sarah fell into a depression.
“Migraine stole so much from me,” Sarah says. “I thought I had failed. I spent so much time and energy caught in this cycle of grief, anger and sadness. I was stuck.”
Supportive parents and a therapist helped Sarah process some of those feelings. “My therapist gently steered me toward the idea of acceptance. That maybe there isn’t a cure, but there is a way to make my life better,” says Sarah. Her mindset began to shift. She began researching ways to better manage migraine in her everyday life — and discovered that lifestyle changes can make a powerful difference.
As usual, Sarah jumped in headfirst.
Lifestyle “Boot Camp”
In 2016, Sarah enrolled in a three-week outpatient program. The program was a crash course in proactive management strategies for people with severe chronic headache and migraine. The program was a big leap for Sarah in every way: financially costly, as well as requiring the physical and mental energy she wasn’t certain she possessed. She was terrified.
“It was really hard. I’m not gonna lie,” Sarah says. She’d scarcely risen to her feet in three years, much less summoned the stamina for what she calls “migraine boot camp.” Activities included medication assessments and infusions, nutrition classes, group therapy, individual psychotherapy, meditation, physical therapy, and group exercise sessions involving treadmills, ellipticals and even volleyball games. One week in, Sarah called her parents in tears.
“I think I’m doing this wrong. I don’t think it’s working for me,” she cried. Nothing felt good. Exercise felt especially grueling. But sometime during week two, Sarah began to feel a change. With consistent daily practice, the new routines didn’t feel quite so hard. She was gaining insight through therapy; stretching and strengthening her body; finding calm through meditation; and enjoying the camaraderie of the other participants. By the end of the program, Sarah’s improvement was already apparent.
“My family said I actually looked different––more alert, holding myself differently,” remembers Sarah. “I was speaking in a way that was more relaxed and clear. My brain was working better.” She was starting to see a path forward.
Sarah’s Lifestyle Toolkit
In the five years since, Sarah has remained committed to migraine-healthy routines as a complement to her medication plan. It’s paid off. “I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I was five years ago,” she says. “I feel better, happier, more fulfilled, more functional, and just living a better life.”
She moved out of her parents’ house and now lives with her boyfriend, whom she met on OKCupid; inspired by her newfound good health, Sarah had thought it might be fun to try dating. “I was optimistic but honest with him about where chronic migraine had taken me in life, and that I was in a rebuilding phase,” she remembers. “We met for dinner, and it was magic.” She also engages with friends regularly. And while her migraine symptoms are still present every day––and some days are worse than others––she feels confident in her ability to handle them. “In some ways I feel stronger than ever,” she says.
Through trial and error, Sarah has learned what routines work best for her. Among her discoveries: Eating regular meals is important for maintaining her stability. So is pacing her activities, so as not to deplete herself and spiral into “boom and bust” migraine cycles. The most crucial behaviors in Sarah’s lifestyle toolkit, though, revolve around daily stress management.
Here are Sarah’s three core strategies:
- Meditation. Twice a day for prevention; also to lessen pain during migraine attacks.
- “I am a meditation convert! I never really understood the point before, but it really retrains your brain. I started with a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing, and I was surprised––I was able to bring myself inward and focus on the moment and emerged feeling relaxed and energized. Nowadays I’ll do a 10 or 15-minute meditation. It makes the pain more manageable and I feel refreshed, looser and more ready to take on the day.”
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Sessions every two weeks; daily use of CBT principles to manage stress and anxiety.
- “I never realized how many catastrophizing thoughts I had about my pain like I’m dying, or This will never get better. The idea is to catch your own thoughts and analyze them a little bit. Because logically I know I’m not dying, and it’s always gotten better, so there’s actually no reason to panic. To be able to vanquish those thoughts takes away the fear and anxiety.”
- Exercise. Every day for 30 minutes, even if it needs to be in 5-minute increments: walking, chair yoga, tai chi, YouTube dance routines to Britney Spears songs.
- “Exercise has never become pleasant for me. But I keep it up because I’ve learned it relieves my stress and over time it has reduced my pain. It can even be a short walk when I’m not feeling well, but it keeps my pain at an overall lower level. That has been eye-opening for me.”
What might belong in your lifestyle toolkit? To learn more about the healthy behaviors shown to help manage migraine, read our article “Lifestyle Changes for Migraine: What They Are & How They Work.”