How I Freed Myself from Migraines

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To stop the crippling pain of my headaches, I had to discover what caused them. What I found was so simple it shocked me.

WHEN I WAS 10 YEARS old, my migraine headaches were so bad that a doctor prescribed Valium, which made me tired and didn't help my headaches much. By the time I reached my early teens, they'd become even more severe, and I never knew when I was going to get one.

During a headache, the pain was so intense that I had to retreat to a dark room. My only hope would be to fall asleep. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I'd sleep more than 24 hours straight. But despite this amount of sleep, I always felt exhausted afterward.

Controlling the Pain
When I was 14, my parents took me to see a new doctor, who kept prescribing different medications until he found one, called Atarax, that diminished the frequency and duration of my headaches. But even though I took it every day, some headaches still landed me in bed. When a headache came on full force, the silver dots that signaled the onset multiplied and began moving in patterns until I felt nauseated. I often had to cancel plans with friends, and as time passed, I stopped making them. I felt increasingly depressed and hopeless.

Desperate for some sense of control, I started reading about managing headache pain. One book theorized that a cause of migraines might be excessive dilation of capillaries in the brain. When I heard about someone who had moved blood from his head to his hands, I decided to try it myself.

The next time I felt a headache coming on, I closed my eyes, breathed deep into my belly, and began whispering, “I am taking the blood out of my head, through my neck, through my shoulders, through my elbows, through my wrists, and into my fingertips.” I repeated that sentence, concentrating on every word, until I felt warmth in my fingertips. Then I shifted my attention to moving the blood from my head to the tips of my toes. Meanwhile, the pain gradually subsided.

To this day, I'm amazed that at 14 I understood that I had the power to alter my bodily functions in this way. I only later learned that I'd stumbled on a technique known as biofeedback, which trains people to alter involuntary body functions.

With the help of Atarax, biofeedback, and, when all else failed, sleep, I was able to manage my migraines for about five years. Then, when I was 19 and in college, I experienced what turned out to be a life-altering workshop.

Releasing the Pain
One day the psychotherapist I was seeing to help me cope with my headache-related depression suggested that I attend an anger workshop. I'd never seen myself as an angry person, but I was unhappy enough to try anything.

During my first session, I sat with about 20 people of all ages in a large circle around a pile of plastic bats and pillows. The group leader had us begin with warm-up exercises, like stomping our feet and shouting, which I was too embarrassed to do. Then a man who'd volunteered to express his anger toward his mother stepped into the circle and began yelling and pounding pillows. He started hitting the floor with a bat. I'd never seen such an explosion of anger and immediately felt the beginnings of a migraine.

Then something inside me snapped, as if his actions had given me permission to feel the anger I'd hidden from everyone, even myself, for many years. I'd grown up in an alcoholic family and never felt safe enough to express my feelings. Instead, I'd tried to please my parents and bring stability to our chaotic environment. Watching that man rage, I realized how angry I was about not having had the freedom to be a carefree, spontaneous child.

When he finally stopped, the group leader asked us how we felt, and I said I had a full-blown migraine. She told me to direct my attention to my head and ask the pain what it had to tell me. I did, and eventually the pounding turned into a sound. I heard the word “no” over and over again, and I visualized thousands of angry little men, dressed in green uniforms and wearing helmets, marching in protest in my skull.

I drew a picture of them and showed it to the group, and then, without warning, I started shouting. To my surprise, my headache immediately diminished. Because I felt comfortable enough with the group to share my feelings, I decided to return to the workshop once a week. At every session, as soon as a headache would start, I'd listen closely to the angry little men inside my head. Then I'd express my angry thoughts to the group and write about them when I got home. Three weeks after the workshop, with the guidance of a doctor, I went off Atarax.

Learning from the Pain
That was 13 years ago, and I haven't had a migraine headache (or taken any medication) since then. I've worked diligently to build healthy relationships with my family and friends, and I've learned not to ignore my feelings so completely that their only way of getting my attention is to turn into physical pain.

Now if I have pain, I see it as a window into my inner thoughts and emotions. I see it as a red flag, calling attention to changes I need to make in my life.

At a Glance Kim Maick, 32 Westminster, Colo.
Problem: My migraines were so bad I could never make weekend plans.

Obstacle: I didn't know that my emotions were related to my headaches.

Solution: An anger workshop revealed the true cause of my headaches.

Consider This My Tips for Relieving Migraines
Practice Biofeedback. I learned how to direct the blood from my head to my hands and feet to stop a migraine attack. I taught myself, but it's often easier to learn from a biofeedback practitioner. To find one, contact the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (303-422-8436; www.aapb.org).

Consider the Emotional Causes. I talked to a psychotherapist to figure out what feelings were triggering my headaches.

Express Yourself. In an anger workshop, I found ways to safely release the pent-up rage that was causing my headaches.

TELL YOUR TALE

Have natural therapies helped you improve your life? Please share your story. Send your manuscript, address, and daytime phone number to My Story, Natural Health, 70 Lincoln Street, 5th Floor, Boston, MA 02111. Your manuscript should be approximately 1,500 words, typewritten and double-spaced. If we publish it, we will pay you $100. Manuscripts will be edited and cannot be returned.

PHOTO (COLOR): Once I needed to retreat to a dark room to escape the pain. Today I'm free to enjoy life.

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By Kim Maick

Kim Maick, a journalist, leads workshops that use dance to release emotions held in the body.

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