Your headache toolkit: 8 tips for managing headaches
How often do you get headaches? Enough to affect your happiness? Whether you experience occasional migraines or suffer from a chronic condition, headaches can be both emotionally and physically distressing. They may prevent you from getting together with friends or having sex with your partner, or they may hinder your focus at work. In this article I discuss some tools to help you cope with headaches. These are techniques I’ve discovered in my career as a health psychologist, as well as from personal experience.
Tips for dealing with the psychological effects of headaches*
Although we can’t always control when or how often a headache will strike, having a “headache strategy” can help you feel more in charge of your wellbeing.
- Identify your headache pattern. Start a headache journal to help you keep track of when and how your headaches appear. What are the triggers? How often do you get headaches?
Think about the last time you had a headache:
- How long did it last?
- How intense was it?
- What were you doing immediately before the headache started?
- Is there anything else that stands out?
Understanding your headaches makes it easier for you to prepare for them – and perhaps even avoid them. For example, if there is specific time of the day when you get a headache, what could you do before the pain kicks in?
- Create your pain management plan. What will you do before, during and after the headache? You know yourself best – but to inspire you, here is an example of my plan:
- Before the headache: I try to drink more water, eat plenty of fruits and salads, take naps, and make sure I sleep at least eight hours every night. I also do regular stretching exercises and meditation to encourage a state of relaxation.
- During: Placing ice alternately on my forehead and on the scalp (at the back of the head) for a few minutes usually helps with the pain. I also remind myself that “this will pass” and that every minute that passes brings me closer to pain relief.
- After: I give myself some TLC (tender loving care) and I am very gentle on myself. I may enjoy a hot bath or keep my schedule light. I also listen to my body more closely as it expresses its needs after having been in pain.
- Do breathing exercises: Being generally more relaxed can help alleviate headaches. Breathing is a simple way to get into a more relaxed space. It also helps to breathe in for three counts and out for six during the headache (repeat a few times). This will bring more oxygen to your body and will help ease the pain.
- Moderate how much alcohol, coffee or (caffeinated) tea you drink. These are known risk factors for headaches – which is not what you want, right?!
- Avoid overusing medication. Taking headache medications, including over-the-counter ones, more than twice a week can increase the severity and frequency of your headaches (these can have what is known as a “rebound effect”).
- A gentle massage helps! Massage can reduce stress, relieve pain and promote relaxation. It can be particularly helpful if you have tight muscles in the back of your head, neck and shoulders. In this case, be sure to go to a professional!
- Expressing your needs to loved ones can have a huge impact on how you cope with headaches – and on your relationships. Don’t expect friends and loved ones to instinctively know what’s best for you. Gently ask for what you need, whether it’s time alone or less attention paid to your headaches.
- Consider counselling – especially if the headaches affect your day-to-day functioning (also consult a doctor, of course). A counsellor or therapist offers support, helps you manage stress and helps you understand the psychological effects of your headache pain.
*This information is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. All material in this article is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health programme.
ps. To those suffering from headaches regularly, you are in my thoughts and I am sending you my very best wishes for a pain-free life and/or a good quality of life regardless of the moments of pain.
Which strategy has been useful for you? If you have extra tips to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!
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