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8 Tips for Coping With Migraines in College

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Today I am going to talk about having migraines in university and college. My migraines began when I was in university and had become chronic by the time I was working on my Master’s. Since those migraines were frequent but poorly treated, I did not go for my PhD and instead entered the work field. I am not going to say going for higher education with chronic pain is easy, because it is a challenge. However, it is also rewarding. I believe it takes a lot of determination.

When I had chronic migraines in university, my main issue was getting to class on severe days. Intense nausea and vomiting were serious issues along with my migraines then. I also had concentration problems, speaking problems, aphasia and brain fog. A few of the medications I tried made my brain fog substantially worse and affected my work, which was obviously a major concern. I remember a paper I wrote on one preventative and when I got it back, I had passed, but it was far below my usual grade and standards. When I read it over, I could see why. It was clearly written by someone who had no focus or concentration. I knew the medication had been making me groggy and dopey but until that moment I had not realized how much. I told my doctor if I could not function there was no point in taking it. I also very clearly remember that due to brain fog, aphasia and pain, it took me far longer to edit my Master’s thesis than to actually write it. All those errors from writing and researching with migraines were all wrapped inside it, and I had to weed them out while dealing with – you guessed it – migraines.

Going to university or college is already a significant change in your life. Significant changes can cause increases in pain, extra emotional distress and a great deal of stress, none of which is good for migraines. It is in our nature to conceal our struggles from others in order to function, but this often creates a sense of isolation and we no longer have our familiar support network of family and friends to fall back on if we are living somewhere far from home. This time in our lives strains our coping strategies because the methods we used to cope with our disability are not always effective in our new environment.

There is always a period of adaptation where we try to adjust our coping. This is where we are at the highest risk for depression and anxiety. In fact, the average person is already at risk of developing depression when they go to university or college. We are already coping with something very stressful. I experienced my first long, enduring period of depression in my freshman year and ended up taking a year off due to it. There are many options to deal with this. You could see a psychologist to help with the adjustment. Join a local health group that helps you with your condition during the transition. Join online groups. If it is persisting, definitely see your doctor. Nevertheless, be mindful in your first year or during your undergraduate studies altogether of your emotional health and take steps to help manage it if you find you need to. Chronic illness is a significant stressor in addition to everything else life brings us, and it is not one that goes away. At times it can cause some emotional upheaval we need to be mindful of and treat as quickly as we would any other physical problem, because our emotional health is just as vital.

Several tips I have picked up:

1. Take a lot of short mini breaks when studying to go for a walk. It helps with concentration.

2. Eat small snacks all day. This helps with brain fog. Also drink a lot of water to keep the hydration up.

3. When studying, try highlighting important things in your text and also write notes. This act of underlining and writing notes helps you store the knowledge. Then it also becomes easy to study the notes you have made. Also, if you have a migraine in class it can be very difficult to even comprehend the professor. If your concentration and focus was significantly impaired at that lecture, the very act of taking notes can help you remember the information. It helps that information get in the brain, whereas just listening when you cannot concentrate can make it difficult to comprehend the material, let alone remember it for later. However, you may prefer to utilize technology to help with that aspect so you can then take in the lecture later.

4. When you have completed your disability accommodation paperwork through your university or college, it is a good time to take your letter to your professors and meet with them. For privacy reasons, you do not have to discuss your medical condition if you do not want to. Some people choose to disclose everything so the professors will be aware of any issues that come up, such as missed lectures due to pain. It is a good time to discuss accommodations that would be beneficial, if any, and come to an understanding about them. They may have resources to assist you, like having someone record the lectures you miss.

5. Due to migraine, cognitive issues and aphasia auras, be very careful editing your papers for typos, weird spelling and wording mistakes. Even have someone proofread for you.

6. You may have to decrease your course load. If you feel it is becoming too difficult to handle with the pain, you can take one class out. I needed to do that one year and it really did help. Sometimes with chronic illness we have to take more time to finish our schooling. For my BA, I took one year off in there and scheduled one year with less classes. For my Master’s, I added half a year in there. I have known people with chronic illness to take three classes a semester because that was all they could cope with, which is perfectly fine. We have to understand our limits.

7. In cases where your sleep becomes a severe issue, you could have a discussion with your family doctor about possible medications that might help with it. Another consideration for people with sleep issues is trying to select courses at times that work better with your sleep cycle and alertness when possible. Lack of sleep can trigger migraines. Migraines make it difficult to sleep. It is a problematic cycle. Maintaining regular, healthy sleep habits may not always be possible, but we should try to keep them.

8. Routines also help manage stress levels. Try to stick to a regular routine with regular sleeping, eating and activity habits. This will keep your body regulated and stress levels lower. A regular routine also makes it easier to remember things that need to be done, such as when to take vitamins or medications. It is easy to get flustered and forget things, so setting daily reminders on your computer or phone is one way to get into the habit. Setting up simple ways to be more organized will decrease the stress that comes with forgetting tasks, appointments or things you meant to get done.

Higher education can seem like an impossible task with chronic migraines. It is not. I finished my BA and my MA with chronic migraines and achieved high grades. I admit with the MA, I was pushing it. The point is, it is possible. What is fundamental to understand is we need to pace ourselves. I also learned the hard way that I simply could not do all the things students my age were doing. I could not go out and party frequently. I could not do a lot of extracurricular activities. Prior to migraines, my study habits were rather loose. After I developed migraines, they had to be quite organized because my focus and concentration were shot. Over time you learn the tricks that work for you. Understand your limits. Do things at a slower pace.

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Originally published: November 4, 2016
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