5 Ways To Deal With Intense Pain — Other Than Taking Pills

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
If you ask a migraine sufferer how they deal with the crippling, all-consuming pain of a migraine attack, they'll probably say something along the lines of, "Find a dark room to lie down and groan until it subsides." A terrible headache is just one part of a migraine, but it's a pretty big part of why these are so awful to endure. And medication can only do so much about it.
A migraine is a complicated neurological condition that impacts more than 37 million people in America, yet doctors still don't really know why they occur, or why they hurt so badly. "Historically, when someone experiences pain, we think that something is wrong and we need to find the source of the pain," says Rebecca Wells, MD, MPH, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who studies migraine pain and the efficacy of mind-body interventions for migraine treatment. With migraines, though, the pain is just there for seemingly no reason — which means you can get a little creative when trying to treat it.
When you stress about pain that you're experiencing, it can make the perception of your pain worse, says Elisha Goldstein, PhD, a psychologist and cofounder of The Center for Mindful Living. "Typically, what we do is start trying to wrestle with the pain, resist it, and push it away, because we hate it," Dr. Goldstein says. "We start wrapping negative thoughts around it, and what that's doing is basically putting stress on top of the pain — so you have pain and you're amplifying your perception of pain itself."
There is some promising proof that certain non-medical interventions, such as meditation, may help make the attacks less severe. We may not be able to all-out prevent pain, in other words, but we can change the way we think about it.
Ahead there are some different techniques from experts that might help you grapple with those feelings, whether you're a migraine sufferer or not. Ultimately, the goal of these tips isn't to avoid medication entirely, it's to add more tools to your pain-solving kit, and if you are experiencing pain that isn't familiar to you, you should seek medical attention before going off-book to cure it. But having a handle on your body when you are in pain can be extremely valuable. Start to learn how, ahead.
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Don't try to fix it.
When you're in pain, your gut instinct is to fix or solve what's causing the pain, to make yourself feel better. But Dr. Goldstein says you should just be mindful of what you feel instead, and "be with" whatever that feeling is. "Mindfulness is not outcome-oriented; we're just being with what is and being with what's actually really there, which isn't suffering, but the actual sensation of pain," he says. "Pain is just a sensation, so we want it to be that: a sensation." Instead of resisting it, be curious about it and see if there's a way to soften the body and just breathe in, opening to what's there, and breathe out, letting it be, he suggests.
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Notice the sensations.
For some people, it can be helpful to think about or describe the exact bodily sensations you're experiencing, and nothing else. "Stop the body a little bit, and allow it to be," Dr. Goldstein says. "Notice the sensations: dullness, achey-ness, and pressure that's there." Maybe you feel a stabbing sensation above your right eye. Or perhaps it's more of an all-around, dull vice around your head. Be curious about the sensations, and allow them to come and go. "I might close my eyes because the sensation is strong enough that it needs all my attention," he says. Acknowledge when there's a shift or change in what you feel, and remember that eventually it will pass.
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Stop if you can't be mindful.
All of these techniques are easier said than done, so if you aren't able to feel some sense of relief, don't get frustrated, Dr. Goldstein says. On a scale of one to 10, if the pain is around a seven, then your best bet might be to find some way to distract yourself, because you're not going to be able to be mindful, he says. "If the pain is too great, or you haven't built up the muscles to [be mindful], trying to do that won't be that successful," he says. "Your thoughts are going to interfere too much, and you're going to end up giving up or thinking, This isn't working, I'm a failure, I'm going to toss and turn trying to get rid of this."
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Picture your pain.
Visualizations can be quite helpful. Start by imagining breathing in something that's cooling, light, open, and spacious, Dr. Goldstein suggests. "Imagine the pain kind of flowing out through your breath," he says. Some people might picture themselves in a beautiful, serene, safe environment. Or, you might try to imagine your pain melting like ice melts from a hard substance to water, and eventually vapor. "There's not a one-size-fits-all for this," he says, so however it helps to imagine the pain while staying soft in your body can be helpful. "The only issue with a practice like that is you're setting up an expectation that the pain should be dissolving," he says. Be prepared to try several different things before it totally goes away.
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Use different words to describe your pain.
There's a childbirth technique called "hypnobirthing," in which birthing people use self-hypnosis and relaxation to feel better during labor, and some aspects of this method can also be helpful when you're not giving birth. For example, during hypnobirthing training, we're encouraged to not say "pain" when describing the sensations in the body, says Marie Mongan, a hypnotherapist and creator of the Mongan Method HypnoBirthing. "We reframe the thinking, so come to think of it as pressure," Mongan says. Or maybe it's a tingling, numbness, or a heat that you feel. You don't have to pretend you're not in pain at all, but shifting your mindset might make you feel it a little less intensely.