Surrendering to Migraine: Lessons on Pacing


What does living with chronic migraine mean?

For me, there are months when I’ve barely gone a day without migraine. There are many times when I experience migraines more than 15 days out of the month. A good month for me typically consists of four to six migraines. When you live a life in constant migraine pain, you learn to push through, to persevere, and to, as much as possible, not let migraine stop you from living.

Pacing versus pushing

Just because I attempt to function as best I can and do what I need to do, doesn’t mean I’m not in pain. It just means that I’ve learned how to pace myself and how to deal with the pain and other migraine symptoms in a way that allows me to keep going. Maybe not at the same level I do on migraine-free days, but I keep going as much as I can. Somedays that’s not at all.

I’ve learned there’s a difference between pushing myself and pacing myself.

Pacing is the act of listening to my body and slowing down when needed (or stopping altogether). Pushing is the opposite. Pushing means that I keep going even when my head and body say no, which only leads to more pain and regret.

I’ve made the mistake of pushing through the pain, of trying to ignore it, as if by pretending it’s not there it will go away. Pushing typically means refusing to take migraine medication or continuing work long after I should have stopped for a rest. Pushing never leads to anything but more pain, and often leads to worse pain that lasts longer.

Why I push myself

Living with chronic migraines boils down to simple economics. I can’t take over-the-counter migraine medications, and insurance only pays for so many of my prescription migraine pills. So when the chronic migraines hit, I’m left with nine (if I’m lucky) migraine pills to ration over the course of 15-plus migraine days. You do the math. When the pain isn’t too terrible yet, I wait, and I hope that it just goes away on its own. But it rarely ever does.

Pacing is the better answer.

By paying attention to my body I can pace myself. In a way, pacing means surrendering to the migraine. Not surrendering as in giving up, but surrendering as in understanding that by losing a small battle, I can win the war. This doesn’t solve the problem of not enough migraine meds, but it does help cut down on the need for them and helps me find other ways to deal with the pain.

The Spoon Theory

The idea of pacing was first presented to me through the Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. The Spoon Theory uses spoons to represent the limited amount of energy that we have when we live with chronic illness. Healthy people have a seemingly unlimited number of spoons, while those with migraines and other chronic illnesses have very limited spoons. To make matters worse, the various activities we perform during the day use different amounts of spoons. Sometimes a shower might only use one spoon, but on migraine days a shower may use every spoon I have.

I use this analogy to help me relate my limited energy to others. It also helps me remember that it’s okay to slow down on bad days. If I wake up with a migraine, I don’t hop right in the shower or try to get on the computer. I take it slow. I take my migraine medication and rest. Even after the head pain is gone, I’m usually still left with fatigue for the rest of the day. Just because the pain is gone doesn’t mean my spoons are replenished.

If I feel a migraine coming on later in the day, I try to pace myself instead of pushing myself. What I should do is set aside my computer, or stop what I’m doing, take medication, and rest. It’s difficult because this often means that I don’t get anything done that day.

Pacing and productivity

What I’ve learned about pacing is that if I do what I should and stop for a time, or even for the day, I will likely accomplish more the following day, and make up for the loss. However, if I push myself, the pain and fatigue are more likely to linger for days, turning chronic, and prohibiting any sort of productivity for days.

When you live with chronic migraines it can feel like all your choices have been taken away, like you must give in to the migraine and let it run your life. No one wants that. So we try to push through the pain, and that only serves to create more pain days. There is another option. Pacing allows you to surrender to the migraine without giving up. Through pacing I have fewer migraine days, accomplish more, and continue to live well despite the pain.

See more helpful articles:

How a Lifetime of Chronic Migraines Has Informed My Life

9 Ways to Advocate for Yourself With Migraine

Reni's Migraine Tip: Try Everything