How to Explain Your Migraines to Family Members Who Don’t Exactly Get It

The day-ruining nature of migraine attacks is a fact for many people who suffer from migraines. Even so, communicating the very real burden of migraines to family members (including your adopted family) who don’t know what it’s like can sometimes feel impossible. Let’s face it: For many people, navigating family dynamics in general can be difficult. But the support of loved ones can be crucial in making progress on your migraine treatment and maintaining your overall well-being and happiness.

Some family members may understand it from day one, while others may have preconceived notions about migraines and a person’s ability to just get through it. “Migraines are an invisible disease [many people] tend to misunderstand,” Britany Klenofsky, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and an expert in headache medicine, tells SELF. “Someone can appear healthy on the outside but be severely affected by this sometimes disabling disease.”

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People who don’t have migraines can’t quite understand how excruciating it is to be in a room with bright lights or loud noises during an attack, adds Dr. Klenofsky, or even what it can be like to bend down to pick something up off the floor and your head is pounding. But opening up the conversation can lead to better relationships for everyone. “If the family can learn to understand the symptoms and limitations in activities that cause migraines [can cause], there may be less resentment for missed or restricted attendance at family events and gatherings,” she explains. You can also help your family You in the moments when you need it most.

How do you start these conversations? We spoke to experts to see what they recommend.

1. Wait until you are in the middle of an attack.

If you’re in the middle of a migraine episode, wait until it’s over before having a more general conversation with your family about your condition. Instead, focus on your immediate needs, Leon S. Moskatel, MD, clinical assistant professor in the Head and Face Pain Division at Stanford School of Medicine, tells SELF. Migraine attacks are hard enough without the added stress of having to explain yourself.

This includes the postdrome phase — the final stage of a migraine, sometimes referred to as a “migraine hangover” — when people can have trouble concentrating and may experience symptoms that can affect their ability to communicate clearly, Anna Pace, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine and director of the Headache Medicine Fellowship Program, tells SELF. It’s best to cut off important conversations when migraine symptoms aren’t bothering your mind or causing you pain.

2. Start asking questions.

Most family members will already know that you suffer from migraines. Therefore, consider answering their questions first rather than setting off by making inquiries. This helps base the conversation on what your family already understands and gives you an opportunity to share migraine experiences through your own lens or correct misconceptions.

For example, you could ask what they think migraines are and what they think happens during a migraine attack, says Dr. pace “A patient could then explain to the family member how they experience their migraine attacks, what symptoms bother them the most, and how their attacks may affect their daily routine or tasks,” says Dr. pace

3. Focus on the symptoms that bother you the most.

There are many ways that loved ones can support you during a migraine, but the best approach will be unique to your individual situation. Before engaging in a conversation, take some time to think about what would be helpful based on the symptoms that bother you the most, says Dr. pace

Each person’s constellation of migraine symptoms is specific to them. So, once you’ve addressed your loved one’s questions, continue the conversation by going over what symptoms you know to be the most vulnerable and ask your family how they can help you with those pain points.

For example, if your migraine attacks are causing you to feel nauseous, having someone to shop for you, cook you food, or just make sure you stay hydrated can be a godsend. If you know you are usually sensitive to light and noise, family members can be on hand to adjust the TV or lights. You could ask them to help out with various errands, help with childcare, or pick up your kids from daycare or other activities, says Dr. Pace: “Some people may have visual changes during a migraine attack, so they may not be able to drive or commute.”

4. Offer to bring her to one of your doctor’s appointments.

A healthcare provider can support you to help your family understand exactly what you’re going through — whether that means validating how intense symptoms can be during a migraine episode or reinforcing the importance of taking preventive measures to ward off attacks .

Doctors can also guide you through integrating your family action plan, medical treatments, and preventive techniques, says Dr. muscatel. For example, family members can not only learn how to prepare your rescue medication, but also support lifestyle choices that can help keep your migraine attacks at bay, such as eating.

5. Be smart when talking to children.

Kids can have a harder time understanding the nuances of migraines — and they’re not always good at giving parents a break. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include them! dr Klenofsky suggests using playtime and storytelling through puppets to explain migraines to young children. “It is important, that [reassure] children that you are not sick and that they do not have to be afraid,” she explains. You can stress that you don’t want to miss playtime or the school pickup, but that migraines can sometimes limit your activity — and that someone else who loves them will always be there when you can’t.

dr Moskatel has migraines himself and often tells his son if he needs to rest. He also tries to find solutions that work for both. “When possible, I give him a chance to keep me company with quiet activities that don’t require a lot of light or noise so we can still spend time together,” he says.

Conversations about migraines don’t have to just focus on the cons. dr Klenofsky recommends highlighting successful people with migraines to help normalize the condition. “I find it positive to show my loved ones that even successful athletes like Serena Williams, who works exceptionally hard and lives a very dynamic life, suffer from migraines,” she explains. “It shows that this is not a disease for the weak and can affect anyone.”

6. Get outside help if you or your family members are having trouble coping.

Even if your loved ones know about your condition, they may still find it difficult to understand what you are experiencing and how it is affecting you and them. And you may have strong feelings about your condition and how it is affecting you and your family.

“Many [people with migraine] feeling guilty about restrictions on activities,” says Dr. Klenofsky. “You may feel like you need to conserve energy for work and then limit activities at home, which is difficult for young children to understand. Family members may feel burdened with extra housework or grief that their loved one is missing things.” A piñata full of emotions is completely normal here – for you and for the people who love you.

dr Moskatel says he encourages anyone with migraines to seek all care they deem necessary, including mental health resources. A therapist or counselor can offer techniques to help you and your family continue to have open, honest conversations about these realities. “For many sufferers of migraines, this is a lifelong condition,” he adds, “and so it’s crucial that family members understand the process and provide support.”


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