Welcome to autumn, the season of pumpkin spice, falling leaves and crisp mornings. Nature has shifted gear heading into the more yin seasons and offering us inspiration to slow down, cosy up and let go.
In yogic terms this is known as Aparigraha or non-possessiveness; it is the fifth Yama or recommended moral discipline outlined in the Yoga Sutras. This concept encourages us to embrace the journey instead of becoming overly concerned with the outcome. By letting go of our expectations we can begin to truly live in the moment – this is one of the main goals of yoga, to be present.
But when it comes to the concept of pain, migraines specifically, this concept is going to be a bit difficult to apply and yet it has massive benefits if we can find a way to do so.
We all know that migraines are a neurological disease which often comes with a myriad of symptoms including massive pain in the head. The pain is often localised to one side and is experienced in a different way by all who are affected. When a migraine strikes a dark room, rest and medication are often all we can think about. Afterwards it may be revisiting everything that lead up to the attack to try to figure out what trigger brought this one on.
But what if we could find a way to apply this concept of letting go to the migraine experience? During a migraine attack, a patient can be so consumed with their pain experience that it begins to feed itself. Studies have shown a link between pain catastrophising and an increase in pain experience. Basically, during a migraine, we focus on the pain, and it makes it worse. By letting go of this focus, directing it elsewhere, we could begin to break this cycle and create a new one where the experience of pain is lessened through our own efforts.
A 2023 study on the impact of mindfulness and migraines concluded that by engaging in a mindfulness practice, many of their subjects reported a change in their pain levels and their migraine experience. This suggests that mindfulness might be an opportunity to offer some control over the migraines and a positive step towards feeling better.
One of the most courageous decisions you’ll ever make is letting go of what’s hurting your heart and soul.Brigette Nicole
So we’ve got the idea of letting go, aparigraha – we’re going to let go of the focus on pain and shift it towards a mindfulness experience. But what now? Well, the easiest method for doing this also offers a massive boost to pain and stress relief and it’s something you’re already doing right now – breathing!
Focusing on the breath is a method of taking us directly into the present moment and it is readily accessible. The bonus is that by taking deeper breaths (diaphragmatic breathing) we are stimulating the Vagus Nerve, (you can read more about the Vagus Nerve in this blog post) which is a direct way of calming our central nervous system down.
During a migraine attack we are in fight/flight/freeze mode – ready to face that sabre toothed tiger. This level of arousal increases our experience of pain and contributes to that vicious cycle. Stimulating the Vagus Nerve through the breath takes us out of fight or flight and into rest and digest, a calmer and more relaxed state of being. In this mode we have the best chance of fighting pain naturally, calming our over-sensitive nervous system and slowing down just a little bit.
There are plenty of suggested ways to manage a migraine attack, and I’m not suggesting that you don’t use your medication. But maybe next time try to focus in on your breath – inhale to expand the navel out and exhale to draw it back towards the spine. These belly breaths will take you out of your own head (literally!) and into the present moment, while activating that Vagus Nerve response.
The best way to ensure you can engage with this practice when you need it, is to start working on it each day. It will then become second nature to you and easier to remember to try the next time a migraine looms on the horizon. You can check out this video where I talk you through the diaphragmatic breathing and this video offers a 5-minute guided practice of the technique. Let me know how you get on.