15 September 2014

Meditation, my best anti-migraine drug

If you found this page by searching 'meditation and migraine', I know why you're here. You are desperate. The rest of you probably know someone who does suffer from migraines. Maybe this post will help them.

Please also read the postscript to this post.

I meditate, almost every day, and it's worked better than any drug I've ever taken. My migraines have gone from several times a week, to about once a week. I can mostly control those I do get with abortive medication (triptan drugs). I salute the people who discovered those, over and over again.

How I do it
I wake up in the morning, drag myself into a sitting position and meditate, without even getting out of bed. I tuck my pillow under me and sit cross-legged.

Eyes closed, I let my awareness sink into my breathing, trying to notice only the breath going in and out of my nostrils. It's like submersing in a freshwater pool on a hot day, losing myself in the cool stillness of the water.

After about 10 minutes, I change and just 'dwell' inside my head, feels like cruising in a fine blue sky. I notice how calm and clear it is, and how lovely it feels just to sit quietly inside it without thinking. Sometimes I explore different parts of it - eye sockets, temples, base of skull. As I think about each part, it relaxes.

This second phase is by far the most pleasant for me.

After another 10 minutes, I open my eyes and dive into the day. Or, more often, reluctantly drag myself out of bed and go and make some school lunches.

How I fail, but it works anyway
Ah, how good it would be just to stay focused on my breath, or perpetually inside a mind that is like a clear blue sky. The trouble is that my brain begins to chatter and thoughts begin to roll, one following the other. I notice this, and move back to my breath/clear mind. This re-focusing happens over and over again. It happens to everyone, I understand, except for monks who have been practicing for decades.

Note: my thoughts are not that fascinating, but my mind repeatedly tries to trick me that they are vital. I remind myself firmly that this is not true, not for every minute of the day, and that the benefits of leaving the thoughts and going back to the meditation are enormous.

Too simple to be true?
It seems like nothing, really - 15-20 minutes a day repeatedly trying and failing to dwell in a calm part of the mind. But bizarrely enough, whatever happens in my brain is profound.

I've written earlier posts about this. This post talks about what meditation changes in the brain, and this post talks about a meditation retreat I went on, and what I learnt.

My own style
I've read a lot about the science behind meditation over the last few months. The evidence for its benefits is amazingly strong for many different common problems (including anxiety, immune function and so much more). I also learnt that the benefits are there no matter what type of meditation you do - and there are many different types, which, like religions, all think that their way is superior. Therefore, I just do what I like best and feels easiest.

How to start
I started by thoroughly exploring the Headspace website, listening to the founder's TED talk here, and doing his online meditation (the first 10 days are free and thereafter the cost is very reasonable). Since returning from my meditation retreat, I stopped paying Headspace and just did my own meditation. My own version is quite similar to Headspace's, though.

How long it took
My migraines improved instantly after I began the free 10-day online meditation. I've been meditating almost daily for eight months now, and with time the stability of my brain (as in how easily it slips into migraine mode) seems to get stronger and stronger. Still, if I get a nasty stressful shock, or get way too busy and tired, I will get one. (I take a caffeine pill or drink coffee if I think one is imminent, and this works if I do it quickly enough.)

Of course, weekly is still too often, but I hope that with time the length of time in between them will lengthen. I'm still a baby at this meditating business.

Placebo effect?
I would have written about my success earlier, but was reluctant because in the past I've had other apparent successes. I'd do something new (which usually involved spending money) and it would seem to work for a couple of weeks. Inevitably I'd end up disappointed. This time, after eight months of improvement, I'm cautiously optimistic.

Preying on desperation
There are a lot of people out there wanting migraineurs to part with their money for a 'cure'. When you're desperate, it's very tempting to pay up. It's just SO disappointing when the cure doesn't work. I've tried different supplements, acupuncture, an osteopath, and a gluten and dairy-free diet. They all seemed to work for a couple of weeks. The preventative medication made no difference to me.

But this works for me. Maybe it will for you, too?

If you have any questions or experiences to share, please leave a comment.


I stopped meditating about 18 months after I wrote the post above, because my migraines got much worse again, and I decided the meditation wasn't helping. As soon as I stopped, they got a lot better. How's that for crazy? Possibly I'd been getting so quietly annoyed at my wandering mind that I was sabotaging my own efforts. That was a year ago. Since then the migraines have got worse, got better, got worse again... they are like an ephemeral cloud that appears and blows away again, and usually I don't know why.

I'm sorry if I got anybody's hopes up - but maybe it will work for you. I do still find the mind-training tricks I learnt from meditation to be very useful in my life.

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