December 06, 2018
I’ll be upfront – I don’t like this time of year.
For the past 10 years, I’ve learned one holiday gift I can always count on is stress. For me, holidays have recently become more complicated now that I have moved out of state from my family. There’s budgeting for the return trip, budgeting for gifts, strategically matching our plans with nine other people and the overall whirlwind feeling of everything in between.
Now, take all this and incorporate living with migraine during it all. The stress, the parties, the food and drinking can all set someone up for a doozy of an attack. Some of migraines' common triggers include stress, alcohol, various foods and sensory overload. (Think large groups, loud talking, heavy perfumes and other strong smells.) Yep, all part of the holiday season.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to be more careful leading up to the holidays. If I have plans with friends or family, I’ll be incredibly cautious the day before. No alcohol, better stress management and being diligent about taking my meds are all part of preparing. It’s a challenge, but it’s necessary.
People experience holidays all different ways, which does make the season beautiful. But for me, it’s made difficult because of my disease, and many of us migraineurs have to be hyper-aware of how the season can trigger an attack. Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
Seven years ago – before I learned that alcohol was a major migraine trigger – I spent the couple days before Christmas hanging out with friends and drinking red wine. I had no trouble with drinking red wine previously, but this time, only two glasses gave me a violent migraine – the same day we had to leave to spend Christmas with family. I couldn’t do anything to get ready because I was puking every 15 minutes. My husband thought it was a hangover and shooed me out of the house and into the car, where we had to pull over five minutes later, so I could vomit on the side of the road.
It took me a while to realize all these excruciating “hangovers” were my body reacting to the alcohol and triggering pounding head pain and nonstop nausea. Later, as my migraine frequency increased, I learned red wine is a big trigger for many sufferers. That same year, whiskey triggered a migraine on New Year’s Eve, while we were hosting people at our home and before the ball dropped. I retreated to the bedroom, pushed enough coats aside to curl up in a ball and cried over the pain and missing quality time with people I love.
During the holidays, the alcohol flows. With everyone partaking, it can be easy to give into temptations and pressure to drink from others. When I was younger, I gave into that pressure and often it didn’t end well. Now I know what my body reacts to. Middle-to-top-shelf gin has been my safe alcohol, but only if I stop at two drinks. It took a while to find the right combination, but now I know my limitations, managing my body’s response has gotten much better. I can drink during holidays, just much more carefully.
For many people with migraine, the wrong food choice can lead to onset. In the 15 years I’ve had the disease, food hasn’t been a big trigger for me. I can easily go about my vegetarian diet without having food trigger issues. This isn’t the case for everyone, though. Foods can be a big no-no for migraineurs and some foods to avoid include cheeses, chocolate, bananas, nuts and nut butters, citrus and additives like MSG, nitrates and aspartame. About 11 years ago, MSG from a mall food court sent me straight home with a barf bucket. I haven’t had much trouble since, but I know other migraineurs are not the same.
Before heading out to holiday events, check with the host about the menu and always bring something that is migraine-safe. By talking to the host, you’ll better understand how much you need to bring for yourself when planning out potluck-style or set-menu events.
Even if you bring your own food, the temptation can still be there for the not-so-safe foods. Have someone around to keep you accountable and help with your willpower. Also make sure you are drinking lots of water, no matter if you’re drinking alcohol or not. Being well-hydrated is a big step to avoiding any head pain.
Stress comes hand in hand with the holidays. There is pressure to give the BEST GIFT EVER (!!!), attend parties and hustle to see as many family members as possible in one day. For me, the holidays are rarely worth all the effort. I obviously love my family, but my parents are divorced and when you factor in my in-laws, there are three different places we must be in a short time. Luckily, they all live 45 minutes from each other, but the difficult planning and arrangements are always a strain.
Since my husband and I arrived in Philly by way of Michigan, we decided to only come back home for Christmas. Two major holidays within a month became too much money, too much stress and too much planning. Thanksgiving soon became our low-key, stress-free holiday. Obviously, there is guilt about not going home, but my stress and mental health became priority. Even when it’s tough, it’s important to set boundaries like these for your own health. By not coming home for Thanksgiving, that holiday break gave me time to recharge and de-stress, which are two of the best ways to help manage migraine attacks.
Dear lord, the holiday parties and events. It’s… a lot. It’s easy to feel pulled in different directions or like you must do it all. Let me tell you right now: you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, especially if it’s hard on your health or has potential to trigger a migraine. What I’ve learned is that you cannot make everyone happy and when you try, you are ultimately the one who loses. Work on finding a balance where you can make the right people happy – the people who accept you for your strengths and flaws, the ones who won’t put high expectations on you because hey, we all know life is hard enough.
During this season (and throughout the entire year), it’s OK to say no to events and gatherings if they cause anxiety and stress. Choose your plans wisely and carefully so you can enjoy the holiday spirit while keeping your migraine triggers in check. Letting down a friend is easier than being trapped in a dark room for who knows how long. Plus, if they truly understand your disease, they will have empathy.
The Monthly Migraine is a series dedicated to migraine awareness and support. If you suffer from chronic migraines, you are not alone and we hope to amplify your voice through these pieces. Lindsay Patton-Carson can be reached on Twitter @LindsayPatton.