I ended up with a pretty bad migraine attack this week, so my walking adventures were put on hold for a few days. I try not to be too sedentary when I’m coping with pain. Still, I often opt for rest, especially during the worst of an attack.
I’ve had migraine headaches all my life. Often, just when I think I have a handle on them, something changes and I have to regroup and figure out a new pattern. Fortunately, they’ve been fairly light for the past couple of years. But that doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods, as this week’s pain and nausea can attest.
I’ve learned that my mindset has a big impact on how I am able to manage migraine headaches and other pain. I’m not saying that I can think or wish my pain away. It’s more that a shift in my perspective can help me accept my pain as a part of my life, not as something to fight and rail against. Because I don’t want to be at war with my body. For one thing, having an embattled perspective can be a slippery slope to feelings of resentment, comparison, and bitterness. Plus, I strive to embrace the yin/yang and recognize that both are perfectly natural parts of life. We don’t always get the balance we want — in fact, sometimes life may not feel very balanced at all — but we also can’t assume we know what a perfect balance would really be.
So acceptance, then, is such an important component. It’s a concept I have come back to again and again throughout my life. I remember reading Michael J. Fox’s Lucky Man when I was in the midst of a minor but irksome bout of depression in my early 30s, and his perspective — his capacity for acceptance — showed me a new way to live my life. He wrote:
If you were to rush into this room right now and announce that you had struck a deal — with God, Allah, Buddha, Christ, Krishna, Bill Gates, whomever — in which the ten years since my diagnosis could be magically taken away, traded in for ten more years as the person I was before — I would, without a moment’s hesitation, tell you to take a hike.
For every loss we might think Parkinson’s would incur, Fox chooses to focus instead on the gifts it gave him. Insights, people he met, new appreciation for his relationships. And perspective. Because it always, always comes back to perspective. And we get to choose that perspective, as hard as that might be for us to grasp sometimes. In fact, our perspective, along with our words and actions, are often the only things we can choose when faced with many of life’s little — and not so little — challenges.
That’s why it’s so important for me to continue studying mindset, and to try and share what I’ve learned. Earlier this year I passed the Level 1: Certified Mindset Specialist course from the Mindset Performance Institute, and I’m currently taking Level 2: Certified Mindset Coach. Through MPI’s outstanding programs, I’m learning even more about acceptance and other components of a healthy, successful mindset.
One thing I love most about MPI is the way it incorporates science into the curriculum. Dr. Mike T. Nelson is one of the instructors, and his knowledge on the brain, neuroplasticity, and other scientific factors in mindset and success is as informative as it is broad. He recently shared this lecture on pain by Dr. Lorimer Moseley, which is so enlightening about the biology of pain and some of the implications of those mechanisms. It’s worth a watch for anyone who experiences, or even has loved ones who experience, pain.
Years ago I came across this article, “Suffering Is Optional,” in Yoga Journal, and it was so useful that I try to re-read it every so often. This section also echoes some of my MPI studies, and it has been instrumental in helping me understand and cope with my migraine attacks:
Within all pain and distress we discover there are two levels of experience. One is the simple actuality of the sensation, feeling, or pain, and the other is our story of fear that surrounds it. Letting go of the story, we are increasingly able to connect with the simple truth of the pain. We discover that it may be possible to find calm and peace even in the midst of distress.
Buoyed by knowledge and tools, I aim, as much as possible, to breathe through the worst of my pain. In addition to the benefits of meditation, breathing plays a big part in my pain management. I read once that people often hold their breath in the face of stress, pain, and the like. If I recall correctly, this was related to the fight-or-flight response, though I don’t remember all the details of what I read, and I am by no means an expert on fight-or-flight psychological theories.
Nevertheless, after reading that, I started noticing that I did, indeed, tend to hold my breath when hurting. I still do, in fact. But at least now I have awareness. I am usually able, during painful interludes, to bring my attention to my breath and return to a steady, deep breath pattern when I find I’m breathing shallowly or hardly at all.
I also practice gratitude for my pain-free days (there is a lot to be thankful for, as unfortunately there are many people who suffer much more frequently and/or severely than I do) and try not to take them for granted. And, despite the headline of this post and my acknowledgement that I have been resting quite a lot recently, I also know that moving can be beneficial, both for avoiding pain and for diminishing it when it does come to visit. The key, as always, is to be in tune with the body and the effects of the activity. For me, rhythmic, relaxing movement, such as slow walks and gentle yoga, serve best at those sensitive times.
Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel better, which reminds me that distraction can also be my friend when it comes to pain. At its worst, I need to avoid certain activities, but once I get to the “lurking” phase, as I call the aftermath of a migraine episode, it often behooves me to read, or write, or have a lovely conversation. Sometimes we can expedite pain’s departure by depriving it of our attention.