5 Effective Mindfulness Exercises For Migraine Headache & Chronic Pain Relief

Mindfulness can reduce the intensity and duration of chronic migraine headaches.

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“Mom! Use your tools!”

My 21-year-old daughter was calling me out for snapping at my husband, the closest moving target in the hotel room.

Despite grumbling obscenities under my breath, I accepted her reprimand for my reactive behavior, a direct result of the intense pain and accompanying emotions — specifically fear and powerlessness — arising from my ongoing struggle with chronic pain caused by frequent migraine headaches.


I hit the reset button determined to practice mindfulness meditation and exercises I know work to bring myself back to a state of awareness, acceptance, and openness.

As research conducted by neuroscientists at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health states, "even a simple psychological manipulation, such as distraction, can have a powerful effect on our perception of pain. Our emotional state also has an enormous influence on pain; a negative emotional state increases pain, whereas a positive state lowers pain."

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In plain English, this means that maintaining a positive emotional state can reduce pain and discomfort, whereas a negative emotional state in which you anticipate pain can actually increase your suffering.

It's for this reason that mindfulness exercises are often prescribed by mind/body-oriented doctors as a treatment for those in need of migraine relief or help easing other types of chronic pain.

According to the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness can be achieved by paying attention to the present moment.

This allows a person to attain a higher level of acceptance for the condition instead of focusing on trying to change an unchangeable situation. His studies using MBSR for patients with chronic pain, including chronic headaches, used statistical analysis which indicated a significant reduction in pain.


Incorporating mindfulness into a daily practice can reduce migraine symptoms and serve as a preventative measure to minimize chronic headaches. A regular routine can be quite simple, but the trick is to incorporate it into your life consistently.

As stated by the American Migraine Foundation, "A 2014 study in the journal Headache found that people who practiced meditation had about 1.4 fewer migraines per month."

Additionally, "Another study by the Global Journal of Health Science titled 'The Effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Perceived Pain Intensity and Quality of Life in Patients With Chronic Headache’ found similar results. The study aimed to determine the effectiveness of MBSR on perceived pain intensity and quality of life in patients with chronic headache. At the end of the eight-week period, medical symptoms were down 28-percent, anxiety was down 44-percent, and depression decreased by 34-percent. While MBSR did not eliminate migraine altogether, it did significantly reduce pain."


To get into the habit, you may want to utilize the alarm feature on your Smartphone to serve as a reminder every few hours.

Taking a few short breaks throughout the day to practice mindful awareness, starting with the utilization of breath, for example, may invite a sense of calm which relaxes the mind and body. Developing a regular practice will allow easier access to the tools when pain strikes.

I personally found this to be true in my own experience, albeit, with training.

Weaving mindfulness meditation and other techniques and activities like guided imagery into your daily routine can allow you to tap into your inner resources through exploration and curiosity. Using an experiential approach, mindfulness becomes goal-oriented, starting with a state of focused awareness. Mindfulness may shift despair to empowerment and reduce discomfort.


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Here are 5 mindfulness meditation techniques and exercises to help you find relief from migraine headaches and other types of chronic pain.

1. Acceptance

Acknowledging and taking ownership of the pain means that you accept its existence without judgment.

You have choices with your response, and the choices you make can empower you through openness and curiosity.

Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, in essence, said that choice is the last human freedom.

Embrace a willingness to be in the present moment and invite in emotions and thoughts by accepting and observing them. You can explore the deeper feelings that arise about your pain through writing.


Creating a gratitude list is another method that can help you cultivate acceptance when you focus on the positive aspects of your life.

2. Breath

Your breath is a fantastic tool that is always with you and that you can utilize to relax your body.

Go into a deep state of relaxation by breathing slowly, following the breath in and out, while paying attention to temperature, the pace, and the nuances of the inhalation and exhalation.

Imagine breath bringing a wave of calm into your body, allowing it to settle where tension is located in your neck, head, and face. Imagine coolness or warmth surrounding your head and neck areas which brings soothing comfort as the heat or cold helps the muscles relax while shrinking expanded blood vessels.


3. Sensory awareness

Focusing on sensations allows you to adopt a curious stance without judgment.

Start by noticing sensations in your body, and paying attention to any tingling, pulsating, or temperature throughout your body. Notice how the sensations change. One moment you may feel your stomach, the next your hand. Openness to subtle shifts allows you to step into the role of observer.

Engage different parts of your body. Feel your head, the front, back, behind your eyes, your neck, to see how with focused awareness you have the power to change your attention.

Try this exercise: hold out your hands in front of you in an open position. Pay attention to any sensations and then bring your attention to your fingers, and then to your fingertips. Notice any temperature, perhaps heat, and feelings such as tingling on your fingertips.


You may find it useful and empowering to develop the ability to focus your attention on a specific body part, away from the distressful area.

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4. Visualization

Create a special place in your mind where you can go to for relaxation. It could be a favorite place in nature, such as the beach, or a cottage in the woods, or a favorite room in your home.


Engage your senses; feel the air on your body, notice any scents, listen to the sounds, are you able to imagine a taste, for example, a subtle hint of salt in the air, feel any textures on your body.

Allow your body to relax while enjoying the beauty and feelings associated with your special place.

5. Transferring sensations

Turn toward the pain and be aware of any intensity just for a moment.

Next, be mindful of a part of your body that is pain-free and focus on comfortable feelings you are experiencing in that area. Now focus on one hand and imagine that it is becoming numb. Stay with that for a moment and then put that hand on the area of your discomfort and visualize your numb hand absorbing the pain that you have placed it on.


Experiencing a new relationship with pain can shift you out of the avoidance and fear state.

Strengthening the connection between your mind and body with a daily mindfulness practice can change the experience of pain and reduce migraine symptoms, giving you a better quality of life.

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Tracey Harvey is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Imago relationship therapy practitioner who utilizes an integrative approach with psychotherapy, incorporating mindfulness, guided imagery, somatic experiencing, and hypnosis.