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5 Brain-First Techniques That Are Helping with My Chronic Migraine Pain

Managing Migraine

November 22, 2023

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Photography by Sviatlana Lazarenka/Getty Images

Photography by Sviatlana Lazarenka/Getty Images

by Amy Mowbray

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Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

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by Amy Mowbray

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Heidi Moawad, M.D.

•••••

•••••

These strategies have helped me better understand my brain and manage my migraine symptoms.

In my quest to find relief from chronic migraine, it feels like I have read and tried nearly everything.

Several years into my journey, I started to learn about pain science and a process called central sensitization. Central sensitization is essentially a state of abnormal sensitivity in the brain. Simply, it means that your nervous system becomes hyper-reactive and alters how your brain responds to pain signals.

For some people, this means that your brain essentially learns to stay in pain.

In many chronic pain cases, the brain is stuck in hyper-protective mode, fending off danger as if it has learned that the world is dangerous. The more we avoid doing things we believe trigger or exacerbate pain, the more we teach our brains that these activities, or potential triggers, are dangerous.

After learning about central sensitization, I recognized I was stuck in this vicious fear-pain cycle and desperately needed a way out.

The good news is that our brains are neuroplastic, which means they have the ability to change. If our brains have learned certain pain pathways, they can also unlearn these same pain pathways.

I followed a brain-first recovery program rooted in neuroscience to rewire my brain out of pain.

While migraine is a chronic condition that cannot be cured, I have found that certain strategies involving the mind-body connection, alongside traditional medical treatments, have helped me manage my symptoms. I have gone from having over 10 migraine attack days a month to sometimes going a full month without an attack.

These are five brain-first techniques that have helped me do this.

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Focusing on neutral sensations

This technique is particularly useful for me during a migraine attack. When I have a flare-up of pain, it can be really difficult to focus on anything else.

Finding neutral sensations is a technique where you zoom out from your pain and look for neutral sensations elsewhere in your body.

This could be anywhere from the tip of your nose, your little toe, or even your ears. When we pay attention to neutral — or even positive sensations — in the body, we can sometimes trick our brains into believing that there are sensations other than pain happening.

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Somatic tracking

Somatic tracking is a practice where you learn to look at painful sensations (either physical or psychological) through a lens of safety. You watch these sensations with curiosity and with no intention of changing them or trying to make them go away.

The idea is that when you track sensations in this way, over time, you teach your brain that you’re safe and that the pain signal doesn’t pose a threat.

The key to somatic tracking is doing it with genuine lightness and curiosity.

This was a practice I initially found incredibly difficult. I thought it was impossible to look at my pain through a lens of safety and curiosity. I had spent years desperately trying to will the pain away, and with somatic tracking, I learned to do the opposite. I observed my pain without trying to change it.

It took time and lots of practice, but once I got the hang of it, I saw a significant difference in my own experiences with pain.

Flipping fearful thoughts

One of the simplest, most powerful brain-first techniques I have learned is to catch fearful thoughts and flip them with a “what if.”

Our thoughts are incredibly powerful and have a big impact on our experience of migraine attacks. This technique involves noticing a fearful thought around your pain. For example: “I’m probably going to get a migraine attack if I go for a walk.”

Once you have noticed a fearful thought, you then challenge it with a “what-if” statement. This might look like: “What if I actually feel better for a walk instead of worse?” or “What if I am safe to move my body?” or even, “What if my pain gets better today instead of worse?”

This technique helped me manage the daily anxiety I had around my pain.

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Mantras

Mantras were something I initially rolled my eyes at and thought…”not for me!”

How wrong I was. Mantras have been instrumental in my migraine recovery.

A mantra is a short phrase or sentence that you repeat to yourself, either in your head or out loud. The idea behind mantras is that if you repeat phrases to yourself, they gradually become part of your automatic thoughts.

I found these to be particularly helpful when driving or out walking. One of my favorite mantras is, “Pain came, so pain can go.” I also found “I’m strong, I’m healed, I’m better,” really helpful while out walking.

Breathwork

There are many types of breathwork you can try. Breathwork is an important technique for helping to regulate your nervous system and increase engagement of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Breathwork can affect the vagus nerve, one of the key nerves involved in migraine. One of my favorite breathwork techniques is to combine some slow, deep inhales and exhales while placing a hand on my heart.

A recent study looking at brain imaging found that when participants placed a hand over their heart, the same parts of their brain were stimulated as when giving a hug.

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The bottom line

While migraine is a chronic condition that currently can’t be cured, there are a wide range of treatment options that can help you manage your attacks.

For me, finding a balance between traditional medical options and complementary treatments helped me get my attacks under control.

Brain-first techniques may not have the same effects on everyone, but they’re a safe practice to try incorporating alongside other treatment strategies.

Medically reviewed on November 22, 2023

5 Sources


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Connect with thousands of members and find support through daily live chats, curated resources, and one-to-one messaging.

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