How do I help someone who's suffering from migraines?

Unless you’ve actually been in the same position and have had as debilitating attacks as someone who experiences migraines, it’s hard to truly understand the hardships they’ve been through and the battles they’ve fought. Especially when it’s an invisible illness like migraines, it could be hard to imagine the amount of pain a person is going through.

However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. More often than not, it’s hard to know how to help and we’re afraid of being a hindrance, leaving us feeling helpless. That’s normal. It just shows you care enough for your loved one of friend to bother to try and that in itself is commendable. How then, can you provide aid to someone when they’re experiencing their worse attack? We’ve got you covered.

1. Actions speak louder than words

Not all migraine attacks are the same, there will be days where we can still push ourselves to carry out daily tasks but there are days where something as simple as getting a glass of water or even getting out of bed feels like a climb up Mount Everest. 

“When I have a migraine I feel like I’m under attack. Everything hurts, sounds, light, smells, even people talking a little loud feel like an act of violence towards me. I get so sensitive and moody, I’m not myself. And my head and eyes burns so bad. I feel dizzy and slow. I just want to go to bed. And this happens so often. Its terrible. Not always is this bad, but its an every day struggle.”

A simple way could be to ask yourself, “How can I make their day easier?” Volunteer to take out the trash or possibly help pour us a cup of water and leave it at our bedside. At times like these, even the smallest gestures to volunteer to get something done is a big help. 

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People who experience migraine attacks tend to have symptoms where their senses are heightened. According to Migraine Buddy users, 70% of users recorded ‘Sensitivity to Light’ as a symptom while 59% recorded ‘Sensitivity to Noise’ and 30% recorded ‘Sensitivity to Smell’ as a migraine symptom. Which brings us to the next 3 points: 

2. Lower the volume and get rid of strong smells!

When migraine sufferers experience noise sensitivity, even the slightest sound like your breathing could sound like cymbals right at their ear. Earplugs are almost aways a must at times like these. 

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Furthermore, although less common, sensitivity to smells can be heightened during a migraine attack (30% compared to 70% and 59%). Some members of the Migraine Buddy community have mentioned that they felt like they suddenly had the superpower to smell almost anything and everything. Strong smells are also commonly said to be a trigger for migraines, especially the smell of perfumes, cigarette smoke and cleaning products, etc. If you know someone in your workplace who suffers from migraines, you might not have known but by not wearing cologne or perfume to work, you’re being very considerate and doing them a big favour!

“They both kill me and certain smells can cause instant vomiting. My bedroom is the darkest, coolest room in my house and I can put earplugs in and avoid all my heightened senses during an attack.”

3. Draw the curtains & block out the lights

Photophobia, also more commonly known as sensitivity to light, is one of the most common symptoms for migraine sufferers. According to the American Migraine Foundation, it refers to an ‘abnormal and extreme sensitivity to light… (where) ‘people with photophobia are hypersensitive to bright fluorescent lights, changes in light levels and even natural light’. 

A good way to help someone who experiences photophobia is to have an eye mask or a pair of sunglasses ready, and better yet, light-blocking curtains in the room. Changing light bulbs to warm lights instead of fluorescent lights could help too. Another good trick which migraine sufferers use is the night mode or blue light filter on their electronic devices. 

4. Less doubt, more love 

We don’t need you to totally understand us, but don’t doubt us when we talk about the pain. “It can’t be that bad” or “Again?”, “You look fine”, these are some of the things that top the list of things that people suffering from migraines hate to hear. Read here to learn more about those “teeth gritting” comments!

“Yes, the pain is real. This is not just something made up. It can come on suddenly without notice while other times you will have some forewarning. Take them seriously when they speak about them. Don’t blow them off like ‘can’t be that bad’, it is. Most importantly, have patience. Even if you have no idea what they are going through, be kind and mindful of what they are going through. No one chooses to have a migraine. It makes it 10 times worse when someone gets frustrated and annoyed and the sufferer tries to push through only to be punished later with the worsening symptoms.”

Most of the time, even a simple question like “Are you feeling better?” would suffice.

5. When we cancel on plans, tell us “It’s okay, let’s meet another time”

Of course, we would love to join you if we could, and we hope you’ll understand when we tell you no. 

“My family and friends think I’m avoiding them. I want them to know how much I really wish I could make it for their important days but sometimes my migraines just don’t let me.”

“I get migraine attacks that last for weeks and I have to call in sick and miss things and it kills me knowing I’m letting my work, my family and my school down. It is so hard to be so sick all the time, but there is nothing I can do. I can only hope for the best and keep myself in a space that I know with be healing for me. It really hard being sick, there are times when I don’t shower and can barely get out of bed, Everyday is a new day and we have to keep moving forward even if it is alone.”

“Because of migraine, it's not easy to make plans with friends, because you never now if you're able to do anything or go anywhere on a certain day at the exact time.”

6. Be sensitive when choosing meeting locations

For someone who suffers from migraines, there may be a few things which we love to do but simply can’t anymore because it could trigger an attack. 

“I can’t do things I enjoyed before. Attending films, concerts, clubs and even playing music.”

“I can't go on long walks in the parks when the warm/hot weather comes back. I would really love to but I can’t.”

“I used to listen to music a lot but I can’t do that anymore.”

Here’s a small tip, avoid suggesting places with a lot of people and loud noises. Maybe a nice short walk in the evening or a quiet dinner at our favourite cafe or restaurant would be nice!

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7. Let us know you’re there

You don’t always have to help. Sometimes we just want to be left alone to recuperate. Your patience and empathy means the whole world to us. Just knowing that we have someone who cares for us on days things feel like they’re falling apart is enough. Your presence and thoughtful actions help us to pick ourselves up when the storm ends and it gives us strength to move on. 

Sometimes, all it takes is to look at things from a different perspective. “If that were me, how would I want to be treated?” Although a simple question, it is often taken for granted and forgotten. Acting whilst having this thought at the back of our minds may just be the key to helping you help the people around you who suffer from migraines. 

Emily Neo