Things I’ve Learned in Grad School: Stress Migraines

Graduate school has a profound impact on a person, not the least of which involves an added level of stress.  Intense weight gain or loss, irritability, isolation from friends, depression, sleep deprivation- these are all effects that I expected as I signed up for my first course.  However, there was one sneaky little stress ninja that had snuck under my radar – migraines.  As a full time employee at a strictly grant funded department at the University and a part time history graduate student, to say I was stressed was an understatement at first.  Time management skills became crucial elements to the maintenance of my sanity.

Just as I thought I had it under control, my body disagreed and decided to go on the offensive.  Searing pain ripped through my head, down my neck, and into my shoulders one morning as my alarm went off.  The noise alone made me want to burst my eardrums because surely the pain from that could not have been as bad as the one that was pounding its way through some kind of offbeat anthem in my brain.  My eyes were swollen to the point where I felt like I could barely open them.  I knew what was going on, I had experienced minor migraines in high school that had similar effects though nowhere near this degree.  Those were more to the degree of tension headaches.  Time, strong coffee, and a hot bath helped me through the day but once I could stand bright lights and sound, I opened my laptop and dug around on the internet for more information like the good little researcher I am.

I went through all the different elements that could be triggering it: household pollutants (dust, mold, new items brought in), weather changes, diet changes.  None of those seemed to have an effect on either the intensity or frequency that these monster migraines were coming at me at this point.  As the semester wore on, they were coming every week.  Having portions of my brain removed was starting to sound like a fantastic idea, just to relieve some pressure I’d tell myself.

Finally, I broke down and made a doctor appointment who prescribed me a medication and gave me a referral to a neurologist.  The magical little pills worked wonders and put me in a very happy, but full functional, place for about four hours, just enough time to be on the other side of the migraine.  Yet I was interested, if not apprehensive to hear what the neurologist had to say.  My great grandmother had passed a few years back because of brain cancer, so with that in the back of my mind I sat in his office explaining my family history as well as my current situation.  He asked me what I was responsible for at work and then what type of classes I had been taking and what my grades were as well as the papers I had written and outside activities I was involved in.  When I had finished, he told me that I was understandably having migraines and he was surprised they hadn’t started sooner.  The culprit was stress.  The age old adage “this too shall pass” was tossed around as we discussed my looming graduation date, but he did not give me much hope for the future.  However, those time management skills will last me a lifetime, especially now that they are paired with my newfound discernment in “outside” activities.  Walking out of his office, my mind drifted back to my great grandmother, the same who had battled brain cancer, bent over the tomato plants in her backyard teaching me how to tell the good from the bad.  She taught me then to “do what you’re able” as she put it “not much more but certainly no less.”

Now, I have the migraines under control and have found exercise to be a fantastic stress reducer for any of you who may be in my same position.  Below are some helpful links regarding migraines, their types, and how to deal with them. If you have any questions or just want to share your story, please post below!

HHS Women’s Migraine Fact Sheet for Women: Stress Migraines

HeadWise Magazine: 7 Ways to Manage Stress and Reduce Migraine Pain:

WebMD: Preventing Migraines and Headaches by Managing Stress:


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