Strengthen Your Migraine Brain: Keep Your Cool

Patient Expert & Health Professional
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During a migraine attack, our brains do not function well. Attacks can have a negative impact on our executive functioning skills. In this 12-part Strengthening Your Migraine Brain series, we will explore each of the 11 executive functioning skills as they apply to migraine. We’ve already covered working memory, so now it’s time to learn more about emotional control.

Definition

The book “Smart, But Scattered,” by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, defines emotional control as “the ability to manage emotions to achieve goals, complete tasks, or control and direct behavior.”

Discovering our baseline

We can discover the impact migraine has on our emotional control by answering three simple questions. Here’s how to answer them and how to calculate your score:

  1. Choose an answer that best reflects your typical response between attacks.

  2. Next, choose an answer that best fits your typical response during an attack.

  3. Compare the two scores. High scores indicate strong emotional control. The greater the difference between the two scores, the more migraine impacts your emotional control.

“My emotions seldom get in the way when performing on the job.”

  1. Strongly disagree (1 point)
  2. Disagree (2 points)
  3. Tend to disagree (3 points)
  4. Neutral (4 points)
  5. Tend to agree (5 points)
  6. Agree (6 points)
  7. Strongly agree (7 points)

“Little things do not affect me emotionally or distract me from the task ahead.”

  1. Strongly disagree (1 point)
  2. Disagree (2 points)
  3. Tend to disagree (3 points)
  4. Neutral (4 points)
  5. Tend to agree (5 points)
  6. Agree (6 points)
  7. Strongly agree (7 points)

“I can defer my personal feelings until after a task has been completed.”

  1. Strongly disagree (1 point)
  2. Disagree (2 points)
  3. Tend to disagree (3 points)
  4. Neutral (4 points)
  5. Tend to agree (5 points)
  6. Agree (6 points)
  7. Strongly agree (7 points)

It’s not unusual to catch ourselves answering each question with, “It depends.” When this happens, it’s a clue that other situations may also affect our emotional control. After all, everyone experiences strong emotions from time to time. We may be calm under pressure at work, but irritable and cranky at home. Maybe certain situations, occasions, or people bring out the worst in us. The more these interfere with our enjoyment of life, the bigger our problem.

Signs our emotional control is impaired

  • Unintentional crying or angry outbursts.

  • Friends and loved one tell us that our reactions are excessive or “over-the-top.”

  • We struggle to maintain composure in public.

  • We react to unpleasant situations without thinking through the consequences.

  • We have difficulty maintaining relationships.

  • Our emotions prevent us from accomplishing goals or required tasks.

Factors affecting emotional control

  • Irritability is a common prodrome symptom. Changes in brain functioning during a migraine attack affect serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. With these changes, we may temporarily experience wild mood swings. Thankfully, our brain chemistry returns to normal as the attack subsides.

  • Comorbid depression or anxiety can make it more difficult to maintain emotional control between attacks.

  • Intensity and duration of pain

  • Quality and quantity of sleep

  • Low blood sugar

Strategies to strengthen emotional control

  • Maintains consistent routines.

  • Reduce stimulation.

  • Set and maintain healthy relationship boundaries.

  • Plan for and practice scripted responses to disruptions in routine.

Strategies to compensate for emotional control impairment

  • Mentally follow our worries out to their worst conclusion, then assess the potential impact.

  • Check in with a trusted friend or loved one

  • Take a “time out.”

  • Enlist the help of loved ones by agreeing to avoid serious decision-making or emotionally-charged situations during a migraine attack.

If we have concerns about our emotional control, it’s important to talk to our doctors about a referral to a behavioral health professional. There are neuropsychological tests that can measure our cognitive abilities and identify areas of needed improvement. The results can then be used to develop a behavioral treatment plan to improve executive functioning.

Sources:

1 Dawson P, Guare R. Smart But Scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential. New York: Guilford Press; 2009.

See more helpful articles:

Strengthen Your Migraine Brain

Strengthen Your Migraine Brain: Working Memory

Depression and Anxiety Linked to Migraine Disability