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The Problem of Only Choosing Self-Care When You're in Pain

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I’ve had migraines for four decades and it has been a long process to learn what affects their causation and relief. Over the years there have been changes, and a big shift happened when I became perimenopausal and began getting up to 10 migraines a month. I became vigilant, observing patterns of how my body reacted to triggers, when I needed to avoid things like alcohol or excessive activity, and drawing back when stress was becoming too much. In addition to medication, I did exercise and stretching, watched diet and caffeine intake, applied massage, heat and cold therapy according to what I was discovering about my body’s responses.

Despite the many strategies I put into place, I still had stretches of bad days. Migraines can be a full-body experience, producing pain all over my body, evoking digestive issues, and interfering with cognitive functioning.

One year the days in which that was happening included Christmas and Boxing Day.

I had been doing research on vitamins, minerals and herbs for migraines and discovered that there are just a few that show positive results in double-blind placebo-controlled studies. There was a company that made a formulation with all those substances in one pill. I was reluctant to try it because they would not be covered by my drug plan. After those few, awful days, though, I decided that it was worth spending the money to figure out if they could make a difference.

The pills arrived and I started taking them and was surprised. I started feeling better. Within a short while of beginning the supplement I went two weeks without any migraines at all. And I was happy.

Sort of.

Something was nagging me and wouldn’t quite let me be completely celebratory about this new-found pain-free existence. At first, I wondered if I had merged my identity with that of being a migraineur, but that didn’t feel right. I kept digging and hit on it.

While having a migraine is no picnic, I really took care of myself well when they came along. I ditched all unnecessary responsibilities. I put on the most comfortable clothes and did whatever my body needed: hot showers or baths, hot foot soaks, and cold packs on my neck. I cuddled up in fuzzy blankets and watched movies, read books, listened to podcasts – or did none of the above if my senses could not handle it. But the point was that I did things that I liked, that felt good and took care of me. My kids were even a bit extra sensitive to me and sometimes asked if they could help me out.

But outside of having migraines, it was full speed ahead. I took care of the house. I took care of my family. I went to work. It seemed there was always something to do and almost never time for me.

At a deeper level, when I thought my migraines were going away, I started to think about losing the only time I allowed myself to take care of me. When I finally made that connection, I realized how concerning that was.

Pain originates in the brain. If I only care for myself when there is pain, that can serve as a kind of reinforcement. My brain can get the message that pain is the way to get self-care. And when I am in need of self-care, it could become willing to give the cue that is necessary to get me to slow down and engage in soothing and loving activities.

I needed to choose self-care, not in response to migraines, but as a lifestyle. Not just because I am in pain, but before I am in pain, because I am worthy. Not just as a preventative activity, but also because these are things I want to do to have joy and meaning and love for self in my life.

The nutritional supplement ended up being another strategy that affected me positively but did not obliterate migraines entirely. I no longer wait for a migraine to come before I engage in endeavors that I find enjoyable. I’ve practiced taking time for myself; my weeks include activities such as meeting friends for coffee, spending time playing piano or guitar, reading good books, watching movies, having bubble baths, going to bed early, massages, stretching, meditation and baking. Self-care is no longer a strategy I employ judiciously, but something I consider essential.

Getty Image by AleksandraKuzmina

Originally published: May 9, 2018
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