By Ambre Emory-Maier
Is this how you picture meditation for migraine? Think of a room painted with soft colors full of people in exercise clothing sitting cross-legged on yoga mats, eyes closed and a serene look on their faces. Soft music, nature or water sounds are heard in the room. Upright, seated, erect looking posture is present that appears effortlessly relaxed. The seated people have the back of their hands resting on the thighs, close to the knees, palms up towards the ceiling Everyone seems peaceful and calm.
The above image is often depicted in various forms of media, portraying this picture as a solution for stress. Because of its uniformity, the picture might be intimidating.
Break the “rules” when doing meditation for migraine
As a long-time teacher of meditation and a meditator myself, I entered into this type of setting when first learning to meditate, and in fact, I hated it! The experience had lots of rules and left me with a sense of failure because of how the session was taught. As years went on, I had opportunities to learn from other teachers and practice meditation. This guided me to the greater benefits and love of the practice.
** While Migraine Strong writes about the latest in migraine treatments, this is not medical advice. We are patient educators and all information you read should be discussed with your doctor.
Let’s define meditation
What is meditation and why is it such a popular, promoted practice for many challenges like migraine? In its simplest form, meditation is about attending to and focusing on the present while linking the body with the practice. Meditation is a practice that can be done anywhere.
Some examples are:
- in line to pay for groceries
- sitting quietly at work for a few moments
- in meetings or waiting for appointments
- at home in a calming, quiet space or on the back porch.
No special equipment is needed, just you!
Many years ago, I taught elementary school children to meditate. One child summed it up simply and said, “Meditation is noticing things, like feelings and thoughts, and not caring about it.” While this statement is simple, it grasps the concept perfectly.
The child is speaking about being in the Present Moment and practicing non-attachment to experiences while meditating.
How does meditation for migraine work?
The American Migraine Foundation notes that “a 2014 study in the journal Headache found that people who practiced meditation had about 1.4 fewer migraines per month. For those who suffer from chronic migraine, the reduction is significant—and the headaches were less severe, lasting about three hours less per headache than a group that did not meditate.”
The mechanisms of meditation and its benefits are under study by the medical field but the practice itself is ancient.
What is known about meditation.
- Different parts of the brain are involved.
- The brain is changeable. This is called neuroplasticity. Regular practice gradually changes the brain and offers positive results.
- Phases of mediation produce an assortment of brain waves.
- During meditation, the brain shifts from its Default Network to the De-focusing Network. What does this mean? A good comparison is moving from the “Thinking brain” to the “Being brain”.
- The parasympathetic nervous system is soothed and settled. This is a key benefit for migraine!
What are the benefits of meditation?
Chronic pain and other health conditions, like migraine, can benefit from meditation. The practice of meditation may lessen physical and psychological symptoms around migraine attacks as it teaches us to manage and adapt to the current situation in a less stressful manner.
Meditation is often part of stress management protocol found in wellness and mental health programs. It can foster better sleep, which is so important for the migraine brain!
Meditation also draws people to it for its advantages of managing mood and emotions, like anxiety, anger and depression and is a safe practice for almost everyone. It is a form of relaxation and rest. Think of it as a re-set.
It helps with self-regulation and reactions to difficult situations. Compassion for self and others develops. It can also be a deep practice of self-inquiry and promote a sense of inter-connectedness with others and the environment around you.
What migraine meditation is not
Meditation is not psychotherapy, a substitute for medication or a magic way to fix your problems. Talk therapy is part of Migraine Strong’s “Treatment Pie.” Migraine disease can impact mood, relationships, self-identity and more. Why not participate in therapy if this can help you live better?
How is mindfulness different from meditation for migraine?
Mindfulness does not equal meditation. It is part of meditation but it is not all of meditation. Mindfulness trains the mind for focus, concentration and learning. It can be one of the first steps in learning meditation. The practice of paying attention to outward sensory experiences, like sound, vision, sensation, touch and taste are introduced and used as a focus point while sitting in stillness. An example of this practice is MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).
Different types of meditation
There are many different lineages and forms of meditation. Some forms may not work for you and others might feel just right. Transcendental, breath, Zazen, Loving-Kindness, spiritual practice, mantras, Body Sensing, Guided Imagery and more, are all ways one can meditate. People connect with some forms of meditation more than others. Try them out and see what fits best. You might find that you like more than one!
Migraine meditative breath practice in 6 easy steps
The practice below is for a calming, centering breath practice/meditation. When practiced routinely it builds parasympathetic tone and cultivates the ability to relax and self-regulate.
1) Choose a length of time that is reasonable for you to do 5-6 days/week (7-10 minutes) breath practice. It can be either AM or PM. It is ideal to practice about the same time each day.
2) Sit or lie in a comfortable, well-supported position.
3) Set 2 quiet/gentle alarms – one for the end of the practice and one for 2 minutes before the end.
4) Allow your senses to open as you settle. Welcome whatever is noted. Noticing mind chatter and emotion is normal. Begin to focus on the breath. For the next 2 minutes or 12-20 breaths, observe/notice/feel your natural breath. Your mind will wander, just bring your focus back to your breath.
5) Practice inhaling quietly and gently through the nose and exhaling through the lips as if blowing through a straw. Keep mouth and jaw relaxed. (3-5 minutes total)
6) After the first alarm sounds, return to observing and feeling your natural breath. Finish the practice. Note any differences in mind and body and welcome all that is present.
If you need more guidance around learning to meditate, you can join a meditation class. Be sure to check out the teacher’s background first. There are also Apps and videos you can find on-line. See some recommendations under Resources.
What if meditation is not for me?
It is completely ok if meditation is not a practice that is helpful for you. There are others way to create comforting, relaxing practices and unplug the “Thinking brain.” Activities that use the body might be useful.
Try some of these meditative activities:
- Walking meditation, being in nature
- Coloring, painting, crafting, drawing
- Knitting, crocheting or sewing
- Playing music
- Petting a dog or a cat
I like washing dishes or ironing when I am too jazzed up to meditate!
Breath Practice courtesy of Lee Shackelford, MD. Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, The Ohio State University.
Hanson, Rick and Mendius, Richard. The Practical Neuroscience of Buddha’s Brain Happiness, Love & Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications: CA. 2009.
Miller, Richard C. The iRest® Program for Healing PTSD. A Proven-Effective Approach to Using Yoga Nidra Meditation & Deep Relaxation Techniques to Overcome Trauma. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. California: 2015.
https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/ Accessed 12.06.2022
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29578127/ Qiang Gu, Jin-Chao Hou, Xiang-Ming Fang. Mindfulness Meditation for Primary Headache Pain: A Meta-Analysis. April 5, 2018. Accessed 12.06.2022
Resources for Meditation
10 Percent Happier App
Wherever You Go, There You Are Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
About our guest contributor:
Ambre Emory-Maier has been a migraine sufferer since childhood. She developed vestibular migraine with aura and Alice in Wonderland Syndrome around menopause. Professionally, Ambre is an Assistant Professor of Dance at Kent State University and has worked for over thirty years in the dance field as an administrator, teacher, stager, rehearsal director, dancer and writer. She also teaches yoga, meditation and well-being practices, partnering with a medical doctor and organization on how these practices can help restore those who have experienced trauma or suffer from eating disorders. When not immersed in her work, Ambre loves to spend time travelling, reading, gardening, and being with family and many pets in a busy household. Because of migraine and its impact her life, Ambre is dedicated to help others navigate and integrate this illness into their lives.