Have you ever cried into your pillow out of desperation when yet another migraine snuck up on you and ruined your day? I have. If you have too, I can truly empathize.
As a psychotherapist and coach who helps people heal from chronic pain, I draw on teachings from books and courses by experts in the field. But my greatest teacher by far has been my own journey of healing from chronic migraines.
I hope that my story invites you to imagine what healing from chronic pain could look like for you.
Part 1: Pain Is a Message
I had migraines for 10+ years. They started as a once-in-a-while thing, but by ten years in they were happening 1–3 times per week. It became a major interference with work, life and frankly, my sanity.
When it first began, I was working a high-pressure job in TV and I could tell that my headaches were related to stress. By the time they reached their worst, I’d left TV and was in grad school to become a therapist. I was studying trauma and was well aware of the mind-body connection. But I couldn’t seem to make a dent in the migraines. I was almost running out of my prescription painkillers each month and I was at my wits’ end.
Then one day when I was feeling desperate, I came across an app called Curable. I wouldn’t normally have thought that an app could help me with migraines, but as I said, I was desperate. And I’m so grateful that I took a chance!
From Curable, I learned something that would start me on a healing path eventually leading to the end of my chronic migraines. It was this: Pain is a danger signal and it’s created in the brain when our nervous system feels unsafe. If we want to turn off the pain signal, we have to help our nervous system feel safe again.
Sometimes the danger is physical (like a broken arm) and sometimes it’s emotional (like a stressful relationship.) Sometimes it’s a learned association (similar to a trauma trigger.)
Sometimes establishing safety is an inside job (like reassuring myself that I’m okay) and sometimes it’s an outside job (like removing myself from an unhealthy social situation.) Often it’s a bit of both.
Once I made these connections, I was able to learn how to stop fighting or avoiding the pain and instead turn toward establishing safety.
Part 2: Express Yourself
As I put this knowledge into practice, I soon began to experience a reduction in the frequency, duration and intensity of migraines. I was psyched!
But healing is not a straight line, and over the course of a year, I had breakthroughs and setbacks, eventually leveling out into what felt like a plateau.
Then one day, a major setback whacked me over the head: I was on the subway in the middle of an hour-long trip when an intense migraine started closing in on me. Dizzy, nauseous and scared, I stumbled out of the train car, switched directions and headed back home feeling defeated, frustrated and hopeless.
Once I gained my bearings, I knew I needed a new tool in my healing toolkit. I’d heard about expressive journaling for chronic pain, but I’d avoided it for some reason. I figured: Why not give it a try.
That’s when I found the work of Nicole Sachs, a chronic pain expert who developed a form of expressive writing called JournalSpeak. Her method involves spilling out your raw, unfiltered emotions on the page every day for 20 minutes.
I dove in head-first, motivated by desperation. I journaled nearly every day for a year. And it changed my life.
In my first year of healing, I’d learned that pain is a danger signal. In the second year, I learned this:
- Our mind and body can only hold a limited volume of emotional stress, and we need to flush our excess emotions regularly — just like our bowels!
- Our emotions are like people: They all have something to say, and if we don’t listen to them they may eventually throw a tantrum in the form of symptoms to get our attention.
As I journaled, the headaches continued to improve. Not in a straight line — I still got headaches off and on — but after a year of daily writing, the full-blown migraines became a rarity.
I still had more to discover, but I’d formed a writing habit that started as a desperate attempt at pain relief and became — over time — a beloved tool of self-discovery.
Part 3: All You Need Is Love
My third turning point came when the full-blown migraines had pretty much subsided, but annoying head tension continued to frustrate me and I started to experience it first thing in the morning.
One day I woke up with head tension yet again and thought to myself, “I’m going to stay in bed and get curious about this head tension until it opens up to me.”
I asked myself: “What am I thinking about each morning when I wake up?” And the answer came: “You’re rattling off lists of things you failed to get done yesterday. And that translates to telling yourself ‘I’m a bad person.’”
That’s what I was unconsciously doing in my head as soon as I’d wake up! Once I recognized this, the next answer immediately came to me: “You need to replace that message with a different one: ‘I am worthy.’”
All this time, I’d been sending my nervous system into “danger” mode with habitual negative self-talk. I needed to replace this habit with a new one of loving self-talk.
Two books helped me learn how to practice self-love: The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. Both offer concrete practices to retrain your brain into loving self-talk.
Learning to talk to myself lovingly changed everything once again. As my nervous system began to adjust to and even expect approval, acceptance and love, my body began to relax another layer of protective tension.
These days, even when head tension does manifest, it’s softer because I don’t get so mad at myself about it. And even when I do get self-critical, I’m more accepting of that imperfection too.
Part 4: Back to Life
The final phase of healing from migraines for me was: Accepting that healing isn’t perfect — and that I don’t have to be perfect in order to get back to life.
I still get head tension more often than I’d like (who likes head tension?) but as I’ve grown more compassionate toward myself and my body, the full-blown migraines have faded away. I no longer have to miss out on work or life because of headaches — and more than that, I’ve learned how to listen to my inner voice and let it guide my life choices so much more than I ever used to.
As I’ve grown confident in my mind-body relationship and as I’ve integrated the chronic pain education that’s been so useful to me, I’ve taken all that energy that I’d concentrated into healing from migraines and redirected it into new areas. Like…
- Refining my work-life balance so that it feels replenishing to me.
- Diving into creative projects that are meaningful to me.
- Making space, time and plans for the things I like to do for fun!
Healing is very important to me and has had a huge impact on my life. When my well-being was in crisis, healing had to become the major focus of my life. But while healing will always be an ongoing process for me, part of that journey is recognizing when it’s time to bring in more balance and shift my energy back into all those other areas of life that I enjoy and care about — which was the whole point of healing all along.
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