Unless you enjoy feeling as though an invisible drill is boring into your skull, there’s never a convenient time to experience a migraine attack. Living with the condition means finding ways to deal with it at work ― and few understand this better than Tony and Emmy Award-winning singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth.
Chenoweth, whose job often entails performing on Broadway or another stage under bright lights, has experienced migraines since she was 25. While many people who live with migraines may not relate to her job description, they likely understand that you can’t leave your job every time one appears. That’s why finding ways to cope is crucial.
Preventative measures, Chenoweth said, have helped ease the frequency and severity of her migraine attacks.
“I really try to watch the caffeine. I’m much better about it than I used to be,” she told HuffPost at the 2019 Migraine World Summit. “Alcohol is another big one and you’re just not going to see me drinking that much. I’m going to try to do everything I can to help myself.”
Despite her prevention efforts, the actress still experiences attacks during performances. And that can cause a surge of panic, in addition to the symptoms of the condition. (This isn’t in your head, either. Research shows there’s a link between anxiety and migraines, which can make the physical struggle that much worse.)
Chenoweth said that in those moments, she tries to take herself outside of the situation in order to mentally calm down. She calls on her faith and uses breathing exercises, which helps her manage the anxiety and panic that can accompany a migraine attack.
“Try your best not to give [the migraine] any more energy than it’s already going to consume from you,” she said.
Next, she advised doing everything you can to get away from bright lights and screens — even if it’s just for a few minutes. “I’ve gone off into the wings in shows and said ‘I’m sorry, I just need a second,’” Chenoweth said. “Sometimes even my own show has had a pause.”
During those pauses, she stays as hydrated as possible backstage. Chenoweth said “pounding water” helps her complete a performance by easing the migraine pain just a little.
“I’ve gone off into the wings in shows and said 'I’m sorry, I just need a second.' Sometimes even my own show has had a pause.”- Kristin Chenoweth
Because lights can make a migraine attack worse, Chenoweth said she isn’t afraid of wearing sunglasses indoors. She’s even done so during a concert performance.
Of course, you may have to discuss your coping techniques with your supervisor, but it’s worth having that conversation. Which brings Chenoweth to another important piece of advice: Be open with your boss and colleagues about your condition.
Migraines are “something that needs to be addressed earlier rather than later,” she said. “Eventually the people around you, they’ll start to get it and understand.”
Opening up to the people she works with has been a huge help to Chenoweth. “I’ve had people in shows I’ve done say, ‘I get them, too’ or ‘I don’t know what it feels like, but I’ve got your back.’ It gives you such a flood of relief,” she said.
Chenoweth didn’t figure all this out overnight. Because so much is still unknown about migraines, there’s a lot of trial and error involved.
“There are things that you have to experiment with on your own,” said Andrew Charles, director of the Goldberg Migraine Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Charles echoed Chenoweth’s advice to reduce caffeine and alcohol in order to prevent migraine attacks. “My approach is to pick your minimum daily dose of caffeine and make sure to keep it as consistent as possible from day to day,” he said. “That works better for many people than trying to eliminate it and then sneaking in a latte now and again. Inconsistency of caffeine is a problem.”
“I’ve had people in shows I’ve done say, ‘I get them, too’ or ‘I don’t know what it feels like, but I’ve got your back.’ It gives you such a flood of relief.”- Kristin Chenoweth
Charles also recommended placing yourself in reduced light during a migraine attack, but cautioned that avoiding light between attacks could potentially make you more sensitive to the light and therefore more likely to experience a migraine when being in reduced light isn’t an option. Finally, learn to identify the early signs of your migraines so you can immediately put your coping skills into effect.
“Certainly, some people find that breathing exercises are effective,” Charles said. “The key is catching as early as possible in the attack because once the train’s out of the station in terms of pain, very often those approaches are not as effective. But mindful approaches and breathing approaches certainly may be useful if they can catch an attack early enough.”
While preventative measures, self-care, and coping techniques go a long way, Chenoweth said it was important for her to recognize that migraine attacks are often a chronic struggle that can impact your job performance. On those days, she emphasized the value of being gentle with yourself.
“When you’re having a bad day, know that I have those bad days, too. And everybody does, no matter what line of work they’re in,” she said. “There’s such a part of us that wants to be pristine and it’s so important to actually forgive ourselves and accept that we have this condition.”
“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In April, we’re covering migraines and headaches. Got an experience you’d like to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.