Helping a Loved One With a Migraine or Headache Disorder

Having a loved one with a chronic migraine or headache disorder can be extremely challenging. The immense desire you may feel to ease their physical and emotional pain can be all-consuming and give way to negative emotions like sadness, anger, frustration, fear, or helplessness. Even though you don't have the magical power to take away your loved one's pain, the good news is that there are things you can do to not only bring comfort to his or her life, but also to be a supportive, empathetic partner in their headache or migraine journey.

Focus on the Positive

You can provide moral support and encouragement for your loved one through kind words, cards, or caring gestures like running errands or bringing over dinner on a bad day. Distraction is also a great idea—telling jokes, sharing a story, playing a game, or bringing over a craft can help keep your loved one's mind off of his pain.

But you'll want to be careful not to have your entire relationship revolve around your loved one's pain and symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, problems concentrating, or sensitivities to light, sound, and smell. This can ultimately be harmful both for the both of you. Instead, focus on the positive, such as what she can do despite her head pain, rather than her limitations.

Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Treating a chronic headache or migraine disorder entails more than taking medications. It requires a holistic approach, one that incorporates medicine, lifestyle modifications, and sometimes therapy.

Exercise

Support and encourage your loved one in engaging in some form of exercise like walking, swimming, or yoga. You could even offer to join him as additional motivation.

Diet

In addition to exercise, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and fits your loved one's individual needs (if he or she has migraine-related food triggers) is important.

Encourage healthy eating by supporting your loved one's decision to see a nutritionist or taking a series of healthy cooking classes with her. If you share a home, you can participate in healthy eating and preparation too, so you're both on the same page. 

Stress Management

It's important that your loved one deals with stress in a healthy manner since excess stress can exacerbate headaches or migraines. Engaging in hobbies or activities he enjoys, practicing relaxation techniques, and learning good communication skills can help. Do what you can to encourage this.

Appointments

Living with migraines or a chronic headache disorder may mean keeping up with multiple doctor and therapy appointments, in addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This can be overwhelming and time-consuming.

It can be helpful to offer your loved one support and friendly reminders, but be careful not to take over. It's important for ever patient to feel in control of his or her own health care.

Other Treatments

Besides providing encouragement for scheduling and following through with doctor appointments, you can also encourage your loved one to engage in other headache and migraine therapies like physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or alternative therapies like yoga, biofeedback, or mindful meditation.

Watch Out for Depression

Mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety, are common in people with chronic headache disorders and migraines. But the symptoms of depression can be difficult for the person experiencing them to actually recognize, let alone articulate these distressing symptoms to others—including a doctor.

Keeping an eye on your loved one and watching out for signs of depression can be a tremendous help. You may even notice signs before she does.

Symptoms to watch out for include:

  • A change in sleep pattern; for example, not sleeping well, difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • Loss of appetite or, less commonly, an increase in appetite
  • A loss of interest in activities or hobbies he or she once enjoyed
  • Difficulty concentrating; for example, not paying attention to a movie or conversation
  • Increased irritability
  • Expressing feelings of shame, guilt, excess worry, or hopelessness
  • A loss of interest in sex

Of course, it's normal for everyone to feel down or blue once in a while. But with depression, symptoms occur daily for at least two weeks. Besides looking out for these signs, follow your gut—most people are right when they sense something is wrong with their loved one.

If you do suspect your loved one is depressed, anxious, or experiencing another psychological disorder, discuss it with her and suggest that she see her neurologist or primary care physician. You can also offer to come along to the appointment.

Keep in mind that mental health disorders often perpetuate the discomfort and distress of living with a chronic headache or migraine disorder. Treatment usually encompasses both medication and counseling. The good news is that with proper therapy, your loved one's headaches may very likely improve in addition to his mood.

Avoid Unhelpful Behaviors

In your quest to help your loved one, it's important to also keep in mind gestures that may not be helpful in the end.

For instance, don't encourage her to take more medication than she was prescribed by her doctor. While medication may ease headache pain temporarily, it can worsen the headache or migraine disorder in the long term. It can also induce the development of medication-overuse headaches—a double whammy.

It's also important not to support significant withdrawal from social activities or family functions. Of course, you may find yourself advocating at times for him, explaining to others why he can't attend a function, and this is OK. But be cautious and don't let your loved one isolate himself. Social withdrawal is not healthy and can lead to depression. Instead, encourage your loved one to get himself off to work, school, or some other activity every morning. 

Keep an Eye on Other Family Members

Research shows that chronic migraines can affect the emotional health and well-being of family members, too. For example, in a 2015 study of migraine patients, researchers found that chronic migraine in a parent reduced family activities by nearly seven days a month. This can lead to negative feelings like anger or irritation among other family members. Children may be particularly affected.

If a loved one's migraines are affecting the household, talking to a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who has experience working with families living with someone with a chronic illness may be beneficial for everyone.

Take Care of Yourself

While it's easy to spend all your time helping your friend or family member with her chronic headache or migraine disorder, remember to care for your own body and mind as well. In fact, your loved one will be better off having a healthy partner or friend.

Be good to yourself. Ensure that you're exercising daily and eating well-balanced meals. Most importantly, know that it's OK to take a break. Whether you're a spouse, family member, colleague, or a close friend who provides a listening ear, it's sensible to get some space for a bit if you're feeling overwhelmed.

A Word From Verywell

You may be an integral part of your loved one's headache or migraine journey—a hard task, but one that can bring peace and perspective to your life if you embrace it. Be sure to nurture yourself too, and do the best you can for your loved one, which sometimes means stepping back a bit.

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