For most people, traveling comes with stress. Going away can be overwhelming, hence the ol’ saying, “I need a vacation from my vacation”.
For those who experience chronic migraines, though, traveling can result in unforeseen hardships and create more anxiety. Not only do the migraines affect the person who experiences them, but the effects cascade down to the travel buddies.
For those who don’t know (or don’t understand), migraines are more than “just a headache”. The throbbing pain pulsates throughout the person’s head and can include visual aura (seeing lights and flashes), sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, anxious thoughts, and more. Migraines are debilitating, and people who experience them more than 15 times per month are considered to suffer from chronic migraines.
Simply put, it’s not something you want.
Migraines are more than “just a headache”.
If you know and/or travel with someone who experiences migraines, I hope you realize you aren’t alone. If you don’t, I hope you learn a thing or two about migraines and those who experience them.
Stress is a popular trigger for migraines, and with the pain of migraines comes more stress. See the cycle?
When traveling, there are a lot of factors that can stress people out: planning, sticking to a packed itinerary, and money, to name a few. For someone with migraines, the anxiety of knowing you could be surrounded by other triggers at any given time adds to it all.
For Those Experiencing the Migraine: One of the easiest ways to let go of stress is to trust your travel buddy. Chances are pretty good if you’re traveling with them, they’ve got your back. No one wants to see you struggling or having a bad time, so when they say they have something handled, let them handle it!
When trust isn’t an option, take deep breaths. Something I’ve taught my friend is to look around the room:
- Find 5 things in the room you can see.
- Find 4 things in the room you can touch.
- Find 3 things in the room you can hear.
- Find 2 things in the room you can smell.
- Find 1 thing in the room you can taste.
Refocusing your attention on something more tangible and in your control can help ease your thoughts.
For Travel Buddies: Help your friend, partner, etc. in any way you can. If you can handle checking in for flights, calculating costs, and finding hotel options on your own, do it. Ensure the one you’re traveling with is feeling more excited than anxious and help them when they are feeling a bit on edge. Let them know you’re there for them.
If they just need to vent, listen. If they need advice for calming down, speak. If they just want a hug, hug them.
The best thing you could do (from personal experience) is to be patient and understanding. If the person in pain feels like you’re mad about skipping a stop on your itinerary, it’s going to make things worse. People who experience migraines don’t want to feel any of this. They don’t want to miss anything or make alternate plans, but sometimes it’s all you can do.
For Neither of the Above: Just be nicer to be people. I know it sounds elementary, but people can get pretty nasty when they’re rushing through the airport or looking to grab a photo at a popular spot. Sometimes you don’t even mean to be rude or don’t realize it can be interpreted as such (I’m guilty of this). When someone is having an already-stressful day, strangers being rude just fuels the fire.
I don’t necessarily mean the awful smell of garbage or passing gas, but odors from coffee, food, perfume, cleaning agents, and more can trigger a migraine. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same triggers, so it’s important to pay attention to the way your body reacts in certain situations. Once you have your triggers ironed out, there are some ways to help avoid them.
For Those Experiencing the Migraine: Take some precaution. If you’re staying in a hotel and know odors don’t typically bother you there, you’re in the clear. If you’re staying at an Airbnb or another type of rental, reach out to the owner. Ask what kind of cleaning products they use and let them know your situation. I understand it could feel like a burden to others or may be a touchy subject, but you are looking to enjoy your trip. At one Airbnb, my boyfriend reacted poorly to the detergent used on the towels and sheets the host provided. It can happen!
If you prefer not to reach out, feel free to bring your own stuff.
When you’re on the plane and see or hear people asking for coffee, use some techniques to block the odor out. You can wear a medical mask or, easily enough, tuck your nose into your shirt. These options may not help throughout the entire flight, but if you catch it before any scents get to you, you should be able to help quell a migraine.
For Travel Buddies: If you already know your travel partner’s triggers, great—avoid them. If you don’t, ask if there are certain things to stay away from. One of my boyfriend’s biggest triggers is odors. Coffee and hot food are the biggest culprits, so I generally make it a rule to stay away from bringing them on the plane.
The smell of coffee will cause a painful reaction with him just as the remnants of peanut butter can cause an allergic reaction to those with a peanut sensitivity.
If you can’t resist, drink your coffee at home or in the airport where you have more space between you. Opt for cold food and drink options (this includes iced coffee!) to bring on the plane or eat warm food before getting on. (Again, where there’s more space between you.)
Another option is to choose flights in the middle of the day or evening. People around you will still eat and drink coffee, but it’s less likely they’ll bring a cup on board or ask for one if they’ve already been awake for a few hours. (Same goes for evening flights.)
For Neither of the Above: The scent of coffee on a flight typically isn’t an issue unless you’re sitting next to the person or across the aisle. If you don’t know the person sitting next to you or in your row, ask them if having coffee will bother them. It seems silly, but it could help tremendously. If you’re willing and able, you can also have your coffee before getting on the plane.
Tip: Something as simple as having a lid on your coffee cup could reduce the smell for those around you.
As a common courtesy, migraines or not, avoid strong-smelling food (ie, fish, onions, garlic) on a plane, at a work, in meetings, etc. Spare people the pain of having to smell your food for hours and eat something that’s far less potent.
It’s no secret that travel puts a dent in your routine. Eating patterns change, sleep schedules shift, and activity levels increase or decrease depending on the type of trip you go on. Skipping meals, missing sleep, and a lack of exercise can all play a part in migraines.
For Those Experiencing Migraines: See above. Be responsible. Stay hydrated. Sleep when you’re tired. It’s better to cut an activity short so you can eat or sleep than try to push through the day with a killer migraine.
Coping with the pain of migraines isn’t easy. They vary each time they attack and they can certainly be debilitating. It can be frustrating when you go away and feel like you’re missing out by laying in the hotel room, but health always comes first.
You want to truly enjoy your getaways and migraines shouldn’t hold anyone back. Everyone deserves to see the world, and there are ways to ease the traveling process to make it happen.
For Travel Buddies: Do your best to help keep a schedule. If you’re on a beach vacation where you plan on laying in the sand all week, encourage your travel buddy to go for walks with you or hit the gym in the morning. Make sure there’s plenty of activity to keep the blood flowing.
As far as food and sleep go, just be aware and be cautious. Make sure you both stay hydrated and get enough rest.
Migraines aren’t fully understood—not even by those affected or by doctors. When they aren’t part of your everyday life and you aren’t close to someone who experiences them, migraines can be easily dismissed as “just a headache”. My boyfriend and I typically talk to our friends about them like you would with an allergy. The smell of coffee will cause a painful reaction with him just as the remnants of peanut butter can cause an allergic reaction to those with a peanut sensitivity.
It’s important to be sensitive to others and look out for each other. Even if you don’t know the person sitting next to you on the plane or the new guy who sits in the next cubicle over, be courteous and show some understanding. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.