There’s nothing worse than having to force yourself to function in everyday life while dealing with something as hindering as a migraine or headache. There you are, sitting at your desk, staring at your screen, when you wonder, “hmm…what’s that?” as you notice a strange visual disturbance in your peripheral eyesight. Ah, yes. That’s called “aura,” and you know this because it has often led to a migraine or headache. If this is true for you, you are part of the one-third of affected individuals who experience “aura.”
Headaches and migraines come in all shapes and forms (unfortunately). First, there’s migraine with aura, which is a classic migraine, and second, migraine without aura, which is a common migraine. As for headaches, there are many more types: tension, cluster, allergy or sinus, hormone, caffeine, exertion, hypertension, rebound, and post-traumatic. The most common among these are tension headaches, which stem from physical and emotional stress, lack of rest, stressful work or other factors such as skipping meals, bad posture, and more.
Migraines and some headaches in general can be described as “intense pulsing or throbbing pain” in an area of the head. Migraines, however, can take it further toward nausea and/or vomiting, or severe sensitivity to light and sound. It can also last between 4 and 72 hours if untreated. While “aura” may sound as if it’s a nice warning of an incoming headache, it’s actually very unpleasant and sometimes frightening. Many describe “aura” as “zigzagging lines,” flashing lights, or seeing stars. It causes temporary blind spots, colored spots, or blurred vision—or even tunnel vision, where you’re only able to see close to the center of the field of view.
Just know, ladies, you’re not alone. It’s happening to other people too—other women.
Let’s go back to stress because it’s is a huge contributor to health issues, and it’s a major women’s health issue. Not only can it lead to depression, anxiety, heart problems, stomach problems, and obesity, but it also increases the likelihood of headaches and migraines. After all, when under stress, muscles tense up, and when this tension lasts a while, it leads to a migraine or headache or body aches.
Stress, however, seems to affect women on a greater scale, as women are more likely than men to report symptoms of stress, including headaches. It should not come as a surprise then that migraine is three times more common in women than in men, affecting 10 percent of people worldwide. Women also get tension headaches more often than men, typically beginning in the teen years and peaking in their 30s. Reasons are thought to relate to genetics, hormone changes in women during menstrual cycle, and are linked to the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the head.
Other common triggers of a migraine or headache attack include: caffeine withdrawal, drinking alcohol, changes in sleep patterns, loud noises, bright lights, diet changes, odors or perfumes, smoking or exposure to smoke, and others. Some food triggers include all the things we love most (life isn’t fair): chocolate, dairy (especially certain cheeses), foods with tyramine (red wine, aged cheese, smoked meat, and certain beans), fruits (avocado, banana, citrus), peanuts and other nuts and seeds.
Research shows that older people tend to have fewer headaches and migraines than younger people. At age 70, only 10 percent of women and 5 percent of men experience them. So while we struggle now, these issues should fade with age. Regardless, always tell your doctor what you’re going through.
A healthy diet, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep are all great ways to avoid a migraine or headache. If you think about it, they’re great ways to manage stress, so naturally they’ll help with headaches. Other healthy habits like meditation, relaxation training, or yoga are also effective approaches. In my field, we do a combination of things to help prevent recurring tension headaches: meditation, relaxation training, EMG biofeedback, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Research also supports that cortical hyperarousal of fast wave activity is found in many people with migraines and supports neurofeedback as an effective treatment for the symptoms of a migraine.
Many people misunderstand the struggles behind migraines and headaches. It causes people to miss out on social activities and sometimes even work. Migraines are the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world; it’s serious business. The most we can do for ourselves is to rest and recover, and when others are dealing with the same, go easy on them too. It’s not always preventable, so we must react healthily both emotionally and physically.