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Anxiety,  Migraine,  Mindfulness,  The Treatment Pie

The Benefits of Therapy for Migraine

I used to be one of those people who thought therapy was only for people who had gone through something really traumatic. Something from their past, maybe a death in the family, but not just for a “normal person” like myself…whatever that means. Now I realize what an important tool it is for everyday life, especially when managing a chronic illness like migraine. 

For many of us, our worlds are turned upside down by terrifying symptoms like vertigo just appearing out of nowhere one day. For others, we’ve been beaten down by years of dealing with pain, canceled plans, and special accommodations for our diet, travel arrangements, and workplace that we feel defeated. Today I’m sharing my history with therapy for migraine and how I became more comfortable with using it as a coping tool. 

My History with Therapy

Growing up my parents had me see therapists during certain points of my life. There was a time when I was really young and my very strict kindergarten teacher called my mother to tell her she was “praying for me”. She let my mom know I was acting out in class because I would turn off the lights on everyone during bathroom breaks and then lie about it (I lived for the reaction!!)….and this is why I just put quotation marks around my statement above about me being normal. 

The therapist my parents brought me to had me draw a house. I can’t remember if the house was supposed to represent myself or just my dream house. But I drew one with big windows and a large porch. The therapist then told my parents I was totally fine…just really bored at school. 

Dealing with Anxiety and School

The next time was later in high school. I was an overachiever. Most nights I spent either in ballet class or working on my science fair project. That was really when I got my first taste of true anxiety. I was never very happy in high school and always felt like I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I felt constant pressure to always get A’s. To always be the one selected for the International Science Fair. At one point my mom bought me this book called Boundaries. It was basically about saying no and realizing that sometimes we just can’t do it all. At least I think that’s what it was about…I never made it all the way through because I was too overcommitted to have time to read it. 

College was when I was my happiest. I felt like I could totally be myself and the rewards came easy for me. My college professors always saw my hard work and I even had a part time job as a teaching assistant. Eventually I scored a great gig working for Tibi in NYC where I made patterns for some of the dresses in the first Sex and the City movie, but NYC wasn’t for me. I missed driving my own car and not having to dodge poop on the sidewalk and wonder if it was a human or a dog.

When I left college during the recession, it was the worst time to get a job. I ended up taking a low paying hourly position working for one of the Fossil’s websites, which is not at all what I went to school for. Eventually I got hired on full time in product development, but my pay stayed low.

The Breaking Point

As a single girl in a big city, it was tough to pay for an apartment by yourself while making less than 30 grand a year. Even after many years at this company, I was finding it difficult to support myself. I was always looking for that next promotion and the pressure on myself never decreased. The year before I was diagnosed with vestibular migraine was my hardest. I was constantly stressed out about work and started having digestive issues. One weekend that we had family visiting, I was doubled over in pain in a back bedroom. After several tests and an endoscopy, it was discovered that I had an ulcer that appeared to be healing. The cause was never found, but after all this time I believe it was a culmination of anxiety and stress.

You would think this would clue me into to make changes, but I pushed ahead and didn’t listen to my body. It was then that I got hit with horrible 24/7 dizziness, weird feelings like I was dropping or moving when I wasn’t, and the feeling that I could hardly keep my eyes open cause my brain was so exhausted. After 6 months of searching for answers, I was diagnosed with chronic vestibular migraine. This illness forced me to question everything I knew about myself as a person. I could no longer do my work effectively – what did that mean for my career?

two people holding hands with coffee

Admitting I Needed Therapy

I realized that unloading this on my poor husband every night was not fair and I needed to seek help from someone who wasn’t close to the situation. Counseling is EXPENSIVE and I wasn’t willing to pay the money at first. I found out that I had free counseling services through Cigna and decided to give it a try. While my phone therapist was very kind and called me each Monday at 3pm, I felt that I wasn’t really getting anywhere with it besides complaining about how hard navigating disability insurance was. I needed a little more support. It was then my therapist suggested I use the 5 free sessions offered with any of the suggested providers under my Cigna plan. 

My first real life therapist didn’t go so well. I was in a bare room with her two dogs and an uncomfortable chair. She kept saying weird things like she could read my aura and see spots around me. I immediately tensed up. I couldn’t wait to leave the room ASAP. It was upsetting because not only had I taken time out of my day to go there, but driving in rush hour with a vestibular disorder is not easy either. 

I did a little more research and found a girl who was similar to my age, but seemed really nice. Our first appointment I felt was pointless. I didn’t leave with any groundbreaking thoughts or ways to transform my life. Isn’t that what therapy is all about?! 

A Breakthrough

It took us a few sessions to get there, but in that time I learned techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Tapping Therapy to help get me through very stressful situations. These helped in moments when I was at work or at the grocery store and could feel the panic and anxiety rising from certain situations. I knew if my anxiety took over, my VM symptoms would spiral out of control. Keeping myself as calm as I could was the key. 

One of the first projects we worked on was keeping a journal. Every day I wrote down 2-3 sentences about my day. What happened, how I felt…it could be anything. And since it was so short, it was easy to do. As my days filled, I was able to look back and really see some OBVIOUS patterns that I wasn’t spotting every day. 

One of my entries on a workday – “Long day – didn’t leave till after 7pm. Very tired and dizzy. Upset about X’s comment towards me to “think like an owner”. Head hurts more than usual today.”

One of my entries on the weekend – “Feeling better. Dizzy on Friday night but 2 days of sleep and I almost feel normal.”

It was clear to me that I had to quit my job, but no one could have proven that to me – not my husband, not my therapist…I had to see it in my own words. My job was keeping me from healing and I would have never realized it without this exercise.

Finding Myself Again

I had tied up all my self worth in my career so leaving this job was devastating. Again my therapist had me write down all the reasons I left, so when I looked back I could see that it was the right decision. I also had to set small goals for myself. Not “get to 100% days in 1 month”, but “walk down the street to the end of the road and back”. This was where I started to get really into cooking again, and that eventually led to The Dizzy Cook. I quit looking at compensation as the mark of doing a good job, and tried to focus my attitude on making a difference in the world.

Even now as I deal with TTC and infertility with migraine, I know that I need to find another good therapist to help me through this challenging time.

6 Tips If You’re Considering Therapy for Migraine:

  • Don’t just try one session and decide it’s not right for you. It takes more than one to build a relationship with someone and really make breakthroughs. But also don’t think you have to be going endlessly to get somewhere with your life. You may just need therapy for a season, not forever.
  • If you don’t click with your therapist then try out another. My insurance refunded me my free session after I told them about the kooky lady. Often if you’re not satisfied, many reputable places will give you your fee back or set you up with a different therapist that’s better suited to your needs.
  • Look into your insurance benefits!! Call them! You might be surprised that you may have access to a therapist on their staff for free, or they can help you get a discount through recommended providers. Sometimes therapists who are still in school will have discounted rates as well. 
  • If you can’t drive to one, there are options like Talk Space. Often therapists are happy to set up Skype sessions as well. Kristi DeName who writes therapy articles on The Dizzy Cook also has this option. 
  • If you find yourself ranting in online groups about your doctor that doesn’t listen, medication failures, and how your family doesn’t understand, please consider therapy. You’ll be able to still rant about everything we go through (which we all need) but actually receive helpful feedback. Not that support groups aren’t helpful, but sometimes it can turn into a total misery fest. A therapist will be able to stay neutral and help you navigate through these tough situations. 
  • Negative thoughts can breed more anxiety and make the situation so much worse, but focusing on the positives in your life can make living with migraine seem a little less bleak. Keeping a gratitude journal or writing down these small goals can make you feel accomplished and remind us of the little bits of good in our lives. If you need some help, join the Little Migraine Victory post in our support group!

    The Calm app and some of our tips for anxiety are helpful, but if you feel like you’re in a rut with your migraine days or begin to feel hopeless, defeated, or broken, I highly recommend giving therapy a try. All the cool people are doing it!

Some therapy options to look into:

Why therapy is important when you struggle with chronic illness, like migraine. Here are 6 tips to find the right counselor and right therapy for you. #migraine #chronicillness #therapy #cbt

I’m Alicia Wolf, owner of The Dizzy Cook, a diet and lifestyle website for anyone with Migraine. After struggling with chronic Vestibular Migraine that was incorrectly diagnosed for months and feeling so alone, I set out to create a space that offered positivity, hope and encouragement to other sufferers. I develop Migraine friendly recipes that follow the Heal Your Headache diet, as well as gluten free options. Although the diet was just a small piece in my treatment plan, it really helped me get back to feeling like my old self and having 100% days again. In an effort to promote awareness for Vestibular Migraine, I am also an Ambassador for the Vestibular Disorder Association and a writer for Migraine Again. I’m currently working on a cookbook that will be published February of 2020.

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