Pain in the brain: handling headaches

I feel like every post I write starts with a disclaimer, but I don’t want you to think that I’m some Gwyneth-esque fountain of advice and coconut oil – the truth is, I’m useless when I get a headache. I get really sensitive to light and noise, I get nauseous and weak, and I struggle to process anything anyone says to me.

A few days ago, I had to jump off the Tube halfway through my commute, absolutely convinced I was going to throw up, the pain was so bad. I searched, hopelessly, for a bin, my bright idea being that I could at least avoid horrifying a train full of strangers.

Turns out, there aren’t any bins. Because of terrorists. Which, I get is a good reason, but that doesn’t mean it annoys me any less than the rule about liquids at airports.

I felt terrible about dropping all my responsibilities and rushing home to lie, stationary, in a dark room for a few hours. I kept thinking about all the things I was supposed to be doing with that time – the groceries, the work stuff, the life admin.

So, here’s my first piece of advice, and this counts for migraines just as much as it counts for mental illness. If you’re sick enough that you can’t do things you normally would, you’re sick enough to cut yourself some slack. To let it go. No one is going to think badly of you, and if they do, well… you have to worry about yourself.

I’m terrible at being an appropriate level of selfish. My default is extreme empathy – I’m great at taking care of other people, perceiving their emotions and moods and countering them. The thing is, I can’t be responsible for everyone all of the time. If they’re feeling moody and put out, sometimes that’s their issue, not mine.

It’s a hard lesson, and one I’m still learning. In the meantime, here are:

My top 5 things to do with a crippling headache (I swear, these listicles get funner every week!)

  1. Try to get somewhere quiet. This might not be practical, but if you’re in a position where you have to stay where you are (for example, you’re fighting a headache but you’ve got too much work to do to abandon it) finding a quiet spot can be a lifesaver. Most of us have the capacity to hot-desk in one way or another, or else give yourself the luxury of a fifteen minute break in a bathroom with all the lights turned off. My default recently is to find an unoccupied meeting room and sit with my sunglasses on and white noise softly in the background. It’s a bandaid, though, not a cure, so don’t make yourself sicker by sticking around if you’re really unwell. You need to think about how you’re going to get home if you’re blurry-eyed and nauseous – it might be a better idea to head off when you feel symptoms start, to ensure you’re not midway home when it gets really bad.
  2. Eat (a little bit) of chocolate. I have no idea why this works for me, but a quick Google suggests it might be a combination of low blood sugar and the small quantities of caffeine present in milk chocolate. I’d like to stress that both of these things on their own have the potential to trigger a migraine, so don’t battle your headache with a cup of coffee with three sugars.
  3. Don’t suffer in silence. If you’re in an office, chances are one of your colleagues will have painkillers. Ask them. If this is happening often, I’d recommend carrying three things all the time: ibuprofen lysine for the headache, and children’s travel-sickness pills and travel-sickness wristbands for the nausea. You would be honestly surprised by how much the latter help – my wristbands have gotten me through many an over-warm commute or over-long workday. They’re pretty magical in that the moment you take them off you want them straight back on again – you can feel them working. Some people have issues with taking lots of meds, and I’d agree with that to a certain extent, especially as ibuprofen can be really rough on your stomach, but as long as headaches are an occasional issue not a constant trial, I’d always recommend trying to treat them before they get worse. And if they are a constant trial, please see your doctor! Even if nothing’s wrong, they might be able to get you the good pills.
  4. Chill out. If you’re on public transport and feeling headachy and nauseous (and if you’re anything like me) chances are you’re wearing too much clothing. I always feel ten times better when I shed a layer, wash my face, and have a glass of cold water. It might be another emergency treatment that buys you a little bonus time, but it’s worth giving it a shot. Just don’t freeze in winter trying to stop a headache! And if wherever you live is anything like London, invest in a hand fan and use it in Summer. The looks people are giving you are envy, I promise.
  5. Podcasts are perfection… when you’re sick, can’t read, and can’t look at your laptop screen. My brightness is pretty much always on the lowest setting, but even then sometimes Netflix is out of the question. When it’s really bad I use an eyemask and earplugs, but sometimes it’s really helpful to put on a podcast or some light radio comedy and just lie very still. It’s engaging enough to stop your mind whirling, but if you fal asleep you’re not missing any huge plot points and it probably won’t get loud enough to wake you. My personal favourite for this purpose is John Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure – I’ve listened to them so many times, I can guage how long my nap was pretty accurately by where I wake up!

Please take it easy on yourself! I have a touch of labyrinthitis, which I think is the cause of my occassional brain-pains, but there’s a solid chance it’s whatever medication you’re on, if you’re being treated for anxiety and/or depression. Plus, both those things make it more likely you’re going to freak out about missing work or failing to hoover.

Take a deep breath, let it out, and if you’re feeling up to it, watch some Ru Paul.

Love, always,


NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.

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