Staying Productive While Combating Migraine: A Patient’s Perspective
Pratyusha Ghoshal Roy
Living with chronic migraine is like driving a car with the hand brake on. You’re trying to steer yourself forward, but there is this resistance that makes the ride rough and unpleasant. You are determined to reach your destination, but the journey is not enjoyable.
I have lived with migraine for as long as I can remember. Especially in my youth, I thought it was “just a headache” and didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking it would go away on its own. But the years went by, and my headaches remained. I started to notice them more because the pain started to affect not just my head, but also my whole body. It became hard to be productive at work while in constant agony.
As an ambitious young professional, I was scared of being slapped with the tag of a “sick” person, so I kept pushing through, silently. Even though I excelled at my job, I found it hard to enjoy my accomplishments.
I was stressed, not because I thought I wasn’t doing a good job, but because I was scared of the toll migraine was taking on my life then and would continue to take in the future.
But then I decided that I needed to do something to turn off the hand brake and drive my life on my own terms. I couldn’t let migraine take over. I read a lot about it, started by identifying some of my main triggers. Through this process, I found that stress is a big trigger for me. I realized that I was stuck in a vicious cycle of being stressed at work because of my migraine, and getting migraine due to the stress. So, I focused my energy on managing my stress levels to cut that cycle and prevent migraine attacks from happening in the first place. Because migraine triggers can come from anywhere, I also took a deeper look at my lifestyle to incorporate healthier habits and eliminate any avoidable migraine episodes.
Migraine is a highly variable, complex neurological disease. It’s not fully understood, and there is no cure. However, I find hope in the possibility to eliminate some of that variability, manage attacks, and even put them in the path of remission by cultivating healthier life choices, and other routines that may sound otherwise basic and mundane, but are good for our body and mind. With that hope, I created some routines for myself that I’m sharing below. Although I can’t say that I’m absolutely migraine free, I have been able to find ways to release that metaphorical hand brake and enjoy some migraine free days.
I try not to check my phone first thing in the morning. This allows me to get out of bed without immediately starting to worry about things I need to work on. Sure, they all still need to be done, but waking up with a fresh and clear mind allows me to be more productive later. It also helps push light sensitivity out of the way.
I start my day with a combination of light stretches, mindfulness and breathing exercises. I have found that doing so helps me start my day in a relaxed manner and allows me to be more focused throughout the day.
Finally, breakfast. I’m not a morning person, so I used to always rush to work in the morning, skipping breakfast quite often. Sure enough, my energy levels would dip quickly, leading to regular migraine episodes. Then one day, I forced myself to start making time for breakfast, and I haven’t looked back. Now I find that on days that I do have to skip breakfast for some reason, a migraine attack is inevitable.
DURING THE WORKDAY
Eye strain and fatigue are migraine triggers for me. It’s impossible to work without looking at a computer screen all day, and doing so can often cause strain to the eyes. I use eye drops and wear my blue light filtering glasses to reduce discomfort. I also wear a cooling mask around my eyes when I’m not in meetings – it’s a funny looking mask, but working from home means my coworkers are spared!
I never skip lunch. I used to justify busy workdays and back-to-back meetings as reasons to skip meals on many occasions. Yes, I was young and took my health for granted. What I didn’t realize was that as someone living with migraine, this was something I couldn’t afford to do. Skipping lunch would zap me of energy in the afternoon, and eventually lead to those late afternoon headaches that turned into a full-blown migraine episode by the evening. One day, my company started serving lunch on premises, and I had no excuse to skip meals anymore. As I started lunching on healthy food on a regular basis, I had more energy, I felt less tired, and the migraine attacks were of lower intensity. It was a game changer. Whether or not lunch is served at work, I have never skipped lunch since.
I ask coworkers for small adjustments that can have a major impact on my migraine. I have wonderful coworkers. Chances are, you do too. But I wasn’t always open about my migraine with coworkers – didn’t want that “sick” tag, remember? But my thinking changed as one day, during the course of a meeting, a coworker asked me if we could meet with the lights turned off. Her light sensitivity had triggered her migraine, and she needed to avoid bright light to prevent a full-blown attack. So we sat there in relative darkness (sunlight still coming in through the windows), had a productive meeting, and got on with our day. It was a temporary and minor adjustment I was happy to make, and we still got our work done. This experience taught me that it’s okay to open up about my migraine. As a colleague once said to me, a fortunate thing to remember about migraine is that it is all about doing things that are good for the brain, and what is good for the brain is good for everyone! Plus, if I don’t speak up, how will I get myself to be heard?
I make sleep a priority. I recently learned how essential sleep is to our wellbeing. While we sleep, the body replenishes and recalibrates itself, giving us a fresh lease of energy the next morning. Without good sleep, the threshold for migraine triggers can be lowered, causing attacks to happen more easily. To lower my chances of getting a migraine attack, I make it a point to get at least eight hours of sleep every night.
Now, routine is hard. Situations change, and it is not always possible to follow rules we set for ourselves. I have to admit, I slip on occasion too. And frankly, sometimes, despite my best efforts, migraine attacks still come creeping in. When they do, I don’t try to power through anymore, because I know that to really be productive, I need to get rid of the migraine attack first. I take some time away from my computer screen, put on my cold mask, take my medicines, and give myself the opportunity to recover. But if I can’t, I take the day off and do what I need to make sure I can come back the next day with energy and motivation. You should try it too. Believe me, it’s worth it in the long run.
Pratyusha Ghoshal Roy is a health innovation enthusiast based in Oakland, California. She is passionate about empowering people (including herself) to live better lives through advances in science and technology, and advocacy. Pratyusha is especially interested in a holistic approach to medicine, and often shares anecdotes from her own lifestyle experiments to promote a healthy mind and body.