A migraine diary can be a useful tool, but only when it reduces your stress and doesn’t add to it. Here’s how I found a writing practice that better supports me.
I love the feeling when I open a crisp, new notebook. From the crackle of the spine to the neatly lined pages, I can’t help but feel hopeful at the chance of a fresh start.
But now there’s a blank page staring back at me, which can be a little intimidating. Should I write whatever comes to mind or use my journal to monitor how I’m doing physically or emotionally?
If you live with chronic headaches or migraine, you might be familiar with the idea of keeping a headache journal or migraine diary. There are good reasons for tracking your symptoms, whether you’re using pen and paper, a spreadsheet, or a notetaking app on your phone.
Some people use a migraine diary to pinpoint the factors that trigger their attacks. This can help them take appropriate measures to avoid or reduce the severity of their symptoms. In addition, you can share these notes with your doctor and see how your symptoms are responding to a new medication or treatment regimen.
But, as with any other attempt at building new habits or setting goals, it’s easy to get off track. For me, logging my symptoms started to feel like homework, especially after I had COVID-19 and subsequently noticed that my migraine attacks were becoming more frequent and lasting longer.
While I’m not suggesting that you ditch your migraine diary, it might be worth taking a break every now and then, especially if it’s starting to feel like a burden.
Here’s why I found it helpful to set aside my migraine diary and what I’m doing instead to improve my mood and well-being.
Whether you’ve recently received a diagnosis or you’ve been living with migraine for years, keeping a headache and migraine journal can help you uncover patterns such as which foods to avoid or which seasons coincide with worsening symptoms.
A good place to start is keeping track of warning signs during the first phase of migraine, which is known as the prodrome or “pre-attack.”
Common symptoms during the prodrome phase include fatigue, nausea, light sensitivity, neck pain or stiffness, and difficulty concentrating. Importantly, not everyone experiences the same symptoms, and the prodrome phase does not always occur before the headache phase.
Once the prodrome phase begins, ideally you would follow a treatment plan developed with your doctor. This plan may involve taking medication or avoiding environmental triggers. For me, those triggers include going outside in extreme cold or heat, dealing with a stressful commute, and being subjected to loud noise or music.
Since migraine isn’t visible to others and people don’t always recognize it as a serious neurological condition, trying to enlist their understanding and cooperation can be difficult. I’ve found that some people think I’m being dramatic or not doing enough to manage my symptoms.
Keeping a migraine diary can feel like a wasted effort when you’re very familiar with your triggers and symptoms but still don’t feel like your treatment plan is working. The added stress of having to justify your invisible illness to the outside world can compound your sense of helplessness and isolation.
When I found myself dreading the moments before I sat down to record my symptoms, I thought about why I had started this practice in the first place. Symptom tracking is supposed to help build self-awareness and, in turn, lead to greater self-efficacy. I had wanted to take ownership of my health and well-being.
According to the American Psychological Association, self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to exercise control over your behavior, motivation, and environment. What I realized is that self-efficacy also includes giving yourself permission to stop doing things that are no longer serving you well.
I wanted to keep up the practice of writing without feeling forced to make it a regular habit if it didn’t work out that way. I started fresh with a cheery aquamarine journal and resisted a deeply ingrained compulsion to write the date at the top of the page (something I always did with my migraine diary).
The first day wasn’t exactly the stuff of memoirs. I wrote out a to-do list for the week, putting stars beside urgent items. I even added a couple of tasks I had completed already, just to feel like I was seeing some progress with my list.
The next time I sat down to write, I was ruminating about work and battling my perfectionistic tendencies. So, I challenged myself to write out some affirmations such as “Perfection is unattainable,” “This doesn’t need to be perfect for me to get started,” and “I admire myself for trying something new.”
Some days I would take a break from writing until inspiration struck. Other times, I would be watching a TV show and feel compelled to jot down a quote that captured feelings I couldn’t put into words.
The point is, I started to approach this new writing practice from a desire to experiment and do what felt right in the moment. When you live with a chronic illness, so much of your life can become regimented by the practices and routines that help provide symptom relief.
It was nice to carve out a space where I could process my feelings and write at my own pace.
Journaling: Try writing freely in response to a prompt such as “What’s something you would tell your teenage self?” or “What is something you used to believe, and what led to this change in perspective?”
Expressing gratitude: List three things you’re grateful for, or keep a favorite quote or picture of someone you’re thankful for inside your journal.
Positive affirmations: Think of statements that aren’t about your illness, such as “I deserve rest without having to earn it” and “Nourishing my body helps me feel strong.”
Grounding techniques: Write out each step of a simple activity, such as making breakfast, or choose a category, such as famous singers, and make a list.
Taking inventory of a relationship: Reflect on your answers to questions such as “What do you enjoy about your relationship?”, What’s something they do that you appreciate?”, and even “What are you annoyed by?”
Whether it’s an ingrained habit or a resolution you’re trying out, engaging in expressive writing can be beneficial for your health and well-being. It can even help reduce depressive symptoms. For example, grounding techniques may help you tolerate intense emotions, and gratitude journaling can help you express compassion for yourself and others.
Practicing reflection builds self-awareness as you explore your thoughts and feelings. Writing gives you the added benefit of engaging in self-soothing behavior while being intentional about how you spend your time.
A headache or migraine journal can help you manage your symptoms, but it’s not the only strategy in your toolkit for building confidence and motivation.
Medically reviewed on April 28, 2023
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