Disclaimer: This post is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any medical conditions. Please consult with a medical professional if you need medical advice. I’m simply writing about my own experiences here.
The first multi-day tension headache I remember experiencing happened at age seven or eight soon after my family moved to Wyoming. Our house was small and comfortable but rarely quiet due to the simple realities of how trailer homes are constructed and the fact that two adults, three young children, and a small assortment of mischievous pets shared that cozy two-bedroom home.
Ordinarily, the overlapping, never-ending conversations, barks from our excitable dog, clangs from the kitchen, and other noises didn’t bother me as a child of that age, but I did wish for quieter corners of the globe when my head pounded for days in a row. What I had instead were cold wash cloths on my forehead and the stillness that comes from lying down and waiting for all of our home remedies to chase that discomfort away.
My life has changed in countless ways since then.
I’ve since learned that mild dehydration, caffeine, and stress are among my biggest triggers for these long-lived headaches.
But every once in a while, one of them still sneaks past my best prevention efforts.
This past weekend was my most recent experience with a stubborn headache that lasts multiple days.
Along with drinking extra water, getting more rest, and eating chocolate when taking over-the-counter pain medicine to help amplify their effects, mindfulness is another tool in my headache-busting toolbox.
Headaches can’t always be prevented, but I can have better experiences with them when they show up by remaining in the moment.
Less Tension, Less Pain
My headaches often spiral into a negative feedback loop of pain leading to tense muscles that in turn lead to more pain.
The best thing I can do when a new one begins is to relax my muscles as soon and as much as possible.
This is where mindfulness comes in. Whether I’ve undertaken a formal meditation session on that particular day or have simply decided to breathe in and out deeply and slowly, every ounce of relaxation matters.
Sometimes this looks like me lying down and closing my eyes for twenty minutes. While it can lead to a nap, sleeping isn’t the goal. Breaking that cycle is the goal.
A Distracting Walk
I know I talk about my love of long walks a lot on this blog, but this time I’m thinking of them as a type of distraction instead of a form of exercise.
Ideally, the walk would take place in a natural setting like a park or a beach, but it can happen on city streets as well. It’s generally slow and meandering instead of brisk.
The purpose of it is to gently pull my attention away from my discomfort and to anything else happening around me.
It could be the sight of two seagulls fighting over a french fry someone accidentally dropped or the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze.
Maybe a jogger will run by and I’ll take a moment to silently congratulate them on their good running form. The sun’s rays could shine down on my forehead and almost feel like a warm kiss from a loved one.
These sounds and sights wash over me. I acknowledge them but do my best not to dwell on them once they’ve passed. Responding to small moments like these is a nice reminder that headaches, too, will pass and that I shouldn’t spend time thinking about how long they’ve been going on or when they’ll end.
There’s something about this sort of distracting change of scenery that does a body good, especially when you’re in discomfort.
Living in the Moment
Patience is a skill I’ve honed nicely over the years.
While medication dulls the pain of a headache in the short term, this is one of those ailments that needs time to truly fade away. It can’t be rushed.
One of the beautiful things about taking a mindful approach to headaches is that it teaches you to sit with yourself in this exact moment.
There’s something freeing about doing what you can to alleviate the pain of a headache and then stopping and observing everything you’re experiencing in that moment without judging it.
Will mindfulness cure headaches? No, not in my experience, but it can make it easier to handle them when they pop up.