While most people awaken to a high-pitched ring from an alarm clock or a gentle vibration of a morning text, in college, I was greeted every morning by a throbbing pain that wrapped from the front of my forehead to the base of my skull. This pain became a shadow that followed me throughout my morning routine, classes, and work. Sometimes it would keep me up late into the night, preventing me from sleeping (which often felt like the only time I could escape it).
Headaches were nothing new to me. Throughout my early life, events as mundane as sugar binges and late-night exam cramming would trigger head pain, but usually a simple pain reliever or nap would have me feeling perfectly fine again.
But migraines were different. They presented a pain that was wholly new and foreign. I began to dread rising to a staccato pounding in my brain each morning. In class, my focus would veer from lectures and presentations to the throbbing in my brain. I would wince at the thought of sunny days because even with sunglasses, bright rays — which used to bring me joy — would only intensify things.
According to the Mayo Clinic, migraine attacks are categorized by recurring head pain of high intensity that lasts for a long duration, often accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells; mood changes; dizziness; or nausea. The pain can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and it's often localized to one area of the head.
When I finally acknowledged what was going on and decided to open up to a few people about my migraines, I got a lot of mixed responses. Some people understood and offered me their support — I had one professor who told me his wife also suffered from migraines and was accommodating because of it. Others simply did not believe my pain or, worse, reduced migraines to an overreaction or an excuse to produce less than optimal work. I’ll never forget how painful it was to see eye rolls or outright disbelief when I confided in some of my professors and peers about what I was experiencing. After a few bad responses, I simply stopped telling people because I figured most would not believe me.
Migraines fall into a category of “invisible illnesses,” which are not readily transparent from a person’s exterior. An unfortunate reality is that many people have the tendency to reduce, minimize, or invalidate a pain or condition that cannot be seen. Seeing is still heavily associated with believing.
When these headaches blossomed into chronic pain that negatively affected my day-to-day functioning, I realized I could not simply “tough out” or “ignore” them any longer. I could not live a meaningful life that consisted of writing daily sick notes. I also realized I was not going to be able to work at my full capacity if I resigned myself to silently suffer under this sickness for the rest of my collegiate and professional career. I had to take direct action to improve my health and my life.
I decided to seek professional help by first going to a primary care physician at my university’s health center, who later referred me to a migraine specialist. The specialist thoroughly explained the scientific background of migraines and what medications and lifestyle changes would be needed to precipitate a change in their daily occurrence. He also prescribed to me a medication, which was strong enough to help the pain pass when it hit really hard.
On my own, I started researching more about migraines, as well. I found that studies estimate nearly 15% of people globally suffer from them; for many, the first occurrence takes place during adolescence or early adulthood. Studies also suggest that migraines affect women almost three times as much as men. In the U.S. alone, there are approximately 28 million women who are affected by migraines. What I was experiencing, although not often talked about, was nothing new or unique at all.
I started implementing lifestyle changes to combat my migraines two years ago, and they ended up being some of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It took me a while to fully get acquainted with them, but in the past nine months, I’ve stuck to a routine that has significantly reduced the occurrence of attacks. I switched out coffee for green tea (reduction of caffeine has been cited as a way to manage headaches). I tasked myself with getting seven hours of sleep a night (saying goodbye to finals-week all-nighters). I actively reduced my sugar intake and modified my innate sweet tooth — which took more self-restraint and control than I could have ever managed. Most of all, I had to learn daily stress-reduction methods to manage the large amounts of day-to-day stress that are simply a part of life as a human being who studies and works. I'm religious, and implementing daily prayer sessions has proven to be a great way for me to keep my mind, body, and soul feeling good, too. I still occasionally get migraines, but the severity and frequency has gone down drastically.
The truth of the matter is that being healthy means actively working to keep your body in check to the best of its ability, which is different for every person. The fear of admitting to an illness or condition or disorder, because of the stigma of marking oneself as “unhealthy,” is still very real. The problem with denying or ignoring a condition is that we then steer away from giving our bodies the treatments they deserve to live at their full capacity. This can be extra hard when it comes to invisible illnesses, because of the pressures we feel from people who invalidate or minimize a pain they cannot recognize. But it’s important to be honest with yourself (and others) about what you’re really feeling. I now perform, study, work, and generally live at a much higher level because I accepted my migraines and worked to combat them, rather than convince myself they would just go away if I simply ignored them.