Vacation Migraines: Headache on the First Day of Vacation? Try This 5-Minute Exercise

Stress is the #1 trigger of migraines. So why, in a cruel twist of fate, do headaches also tend to occur at the very moment you’re trying to DE-stress?

There are several theories about why vacation headaches happen, but there’s one fact they all agree on: you’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. Getting consistent attacks over the weekend or on the first day of vacation is not a myth or a coincidence - it’s a thing (and a pretty common one at that). A study published by Neurology in 2014 found a clear association between reduction in stress from one day to the next and the onset of a migraine attack.

That doesn’t explain exactly why this might be happening, other than to say “changes in stress levels can trigger an attack.” Because we don’t know what this means, some doctors recommend managing your stress levels to be more consistent: start winding your stress down before the vacation begins, or keep working at the start of your vacation. There are plenty of other factors and tips that people speculate on, too: Are you drinking enough water on vacation? Drinking too much alcohol? Changing your caffeine intake? Getting enough rest?

For this exercise, we’re going to put all of those aside. That’s not to say that it’s bad to try adjusting those things, we are just going to take a different approach… one that requires you to stop thinking about what the physical triggers might be, and focus on your mind and your body.

What to do if you’re having a vacation headache right now

First, sit down by yourself (seriously, get away from other people for a minute, even if it’s your family), and take a few deep breaths. Once you’re feeling calm, let’s begin.

  1. Shift away from fear
    When you’re having a migraine, the parts of your brain that are responsible for sending out physical pain signals are *freaking out.* Two of these areas, the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, also happen to process emotional memory and emotional responses, like fear. So, if you are stuck on a loop of fearful thoughts right now, you’re activating those areas to an even greater extent, making your pain substantially worse.

    Here’s what these fearful thoughts look like:

    Am I even going to be able to enjoy this time off? Will this migraine last the whole vacation? Is the air travel going to make it worse? What’s triggering this attack? Do they have migraine meds where I’m going? Can I get my money back now and just home?

    It is perfectly normal and understandable if all of these thoughts are flooding your brain right now. But they are not serving you, and they are exacerbating your pain. So as difficult as it may be, collect them all and set them to the side for the rest of this exercise.

  2. Receive the SOS signal your body is sending you
    One reason why vacation headaches occur is that we finally have room to breathe. If you have a demanding job or hectic family life, you probably find yourself “powering through” most days. You might not take a lot of time to check in with your emotions. But now that there is no urgent task at hand, your body finally has the chance to send you a message.

    Hey it’s me, your body. You’ve been pushing down a lot of difficult feelings, and they’ve been getting trapped in here. You probably think you are doing just fine because I’ve been doing a really good job storing these emotions for you, but I’d like you to let them out now. It's too much. I can’t handle it all. Please stop moving so fast and pay attention to me and only me for a few minutes… now that you have the time, finally.

    Put yourself in an open state of mind, and listen to what your body has to say. The sooner you hear it out, the sooner it will stop screaming.

  3. Get in touch with these feelings
    Figure out what your body is trying to bring to your attention. What are you feeling right now? Are you angry that the ONE TIME you get to relax, your body is declaring war on you? Furious that your boss is still sending you emails? Guilty that you’re leaving your workload on some of your peers? Overwhelmed thinking about how many children’s suitcases you will have to unpack and repack in the next few days? Perhaps there is a situation that you haven’t had time to process yet, or a loss you haven’t fully mourned? When was the last time you actually slowed down? What has happened in your life since then?

  4. Write it out
    Take out a piece of paper and a pen, and write down every emotion that might be creeping up right now. Fill up as much of the page as you possibly can, leave nothing out, even if it feels petty or trivial.

    Next, read over what you wrote. Think for a moment about each situation or emotion. Which one makes your head pound worse when you think about it?

  5. Release
    The last part is the trickiest: get the feelings out. Allow them to rise to the surface and escape. Many people find it helpful to write about the situation, using as many curse words as necessary. Other techniques can also be helpful, like ETF/ tapping, or reciting your inner dialogue out loud. Whatever method you use, keep going until you feel a sense of emotional relief and greater clarity.

Once you start to feel calmer about that situation, take a few more deep breaths.

If you feel some relief, that's wonderful. If you’re still in pain, that’s okay, too. Keep going through your day, doing the best you can to shift the focus away from fear. Try to be kind to yourself. Don't blame yourself for not being as “fun” as you wanted to be on vacation. Instead, respond to your body with love and understanding. “I know you are in pain right now, and that’s okay. I am going to pay attention to you, and this is not going to last forever. I will take care of you."

Hang in there! We’ve got your back.

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Curable is an online program that uses proven mindbody techniques to reduce chronic pain.