Empty or half-empty glasses with liquor, wrapped Christmas presents and broken Christmas decoration lying on a table, symbolizing different migraine triggers.
Asger Hee Stjernholm, MSc

How to Deal With Migraine During Christmas

Learn about the common migraine triggers to watch out for during the holidays, how to manage them, and what to do if you get a migraine during Christmas.

The holiday season can be full of fun, cheer, festive decorations, family, and lots of love. But however wonderful this time of year can be, the out-of-the-ordinary routines that come along with the holidays can also be very difficult for people with migraines.

Whether it’s due to lavish meals outside of your normal diet, the added stress of gathering gifts and hosting family, or the scented holiday decorations you come in contact with, migraine triggers can seemingly be everywhere.

People with migraine are all-too familiar with missing out on family or holiday events due to their condition. And even when they can attend, they often have to endure the events through painful attacks, which makes it harder to enjoy the holiday and to participate fully.

So how can you increase your chances of making it through the holiday season migraine free? Pay careful attention to possible triggers and do your best to manage them.

Common migraine triggers during the holidays

There are many different factors that can activate migraine activity in the brain and lead to an attack. These are called triggers. Trigger identification and avoidance is key to preventing and managing migraine attacks.

Along with all the holiday cheer and festive events, this season can be full of common migraine triggers. These include:

  • Certain food and drink. Holiday meals are loaded with common dietary triggers such as chocolate, aged cheeses, processed meats, alcohol, red wine, citrus fruits, and preservatives.
  • Skipped meals. Going for too long between meals or skipping meals altogether can often bring on a migraine attack.
  • Stress. Stress is a common migraine trigger, especially emotional stress and worry that can increase during holidays.
  • Lack of sleep. When traveling or staying up late for events, it is easy to miss sleep or get out of your sleep schedule – something that can be problematic for migraine sufferers.
  • Lights. Christmas lights are a fun tradition for many. But they are not a migraineur’s best friend. Bright, flashing lights can be a major trigger.
  • Odors. People with migraine can be sensitive to certain odors and scents, which can be abundant around Christmas time.
  • Overexertion and fatigue. Getting overly tired and giving away too much energy (whether physically or mentally) during all the festivities could land you with a migraine attack if you aren’t careful.

7 tips for avoiding migraine triggers at Christmas

Here are some ways to set yourself up for success this holiday season:

1. Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Late night parties, dinners that seem to linger into the wee hours of the night, shopping days that start at the break of dawn… it’s likely your routine gets all mixed up at the holidays. But changes to sleep routines can be very hard if you are a migraine sufferer.

So do your best to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Even if you don’t have to go to work first thing in the morning or even if you attend a party that is expected to end late, try to keep to your regular sleep schedule.

2. Eat well and consistently
During the holidays, it is easy to skip meals in favor of running a bunch of errands, preparing or cooking meals for the family, getting gifts ready, and more. But it is important to eat regular meals filled with healthy, nutritious foods.

Try to keep your diet balanced and prepare by thinking about meals ahead of time. If you know the main event’s meal might not be in line with your diet, offer to bring something, eat ahead of time so you don’t go too hungry, etc.

3. Address stress
Unfortunately, the holidays can become hectic and stressful for many people. But as stress is one of the most common migraine triggers out there, it is essential to manage your stress as best you can.

Lean on all of your stress-management tools during this busy time. Techniques like meditation, yoga, and mindful breathing can be great tools to support you in preventing a migraine. You may also need to practice setting boundaries with family members, prepare for meals and gifts ahead of time so things aren’t left to the last minute, and schedule in time for your own self-care.

4. Take breaks for down time and opt out when necessary
Being around family and friends and participating in holiday festivities can be wonderful. And it can also be overwhelming, especially for a migraine sufferer.

Take breaks for down time and quiet time. Remember that it is okay if you need to take a break to rest, do some light stretching, take a walk, put on an eye mask, or do whatever you need in that moment. Also, be aware of your limits and protect your boundaries. Don’t overexert yourself and opt out of any activities that feel like too much for you.

5. Stay away from tempting, trigger-filled treats
Whether it’s a glass of red wine, a meat and cheese tray, or a decadent chocolate cake, you are likely to come across all sorts of dietary migraine triggers this time of year.

While they might look delicious and worth the risk, try to avoid them as much as possible. Look for tasty alternatives in the spread, make or bring treats of your own that are migraine-safe, and indulge yourself in other ways that won’t give you a headache.

6. Avoid triggering décor (like bright lights and holiday scents)
From the twinkling lights to the pine scent on your tree to a holiday scented candle, Christmas décor can be far from comforting and cheery for migraineurs.

Choose your own decorations carefully. And when out and about, do your best to reduce your exposure to triggers. Try wearing glare-blocking glasses, ask for lights to be dimmed or turned off for a while, stand away from any strong scents, or do whatever else you find helps.

7. Surround yourself with people you can count on
Gather your trusted people around you so that you can feel supported and ready to take on whatever the holiday season throws your way.

Talk to these loved ones ahead of time and let them know how they can best help you prepare for the holiday and deal with possible triggers that might come up.

What to do if you still get a migraine during Christmas

Because possible triggers are so abundant and usual routines can be so hard to come by, it isn’t uncommon for migraineurs to end up getting an attack around the holidays.

And even if you find this time of year to be a peaceful, relaxing, and quiet time where you can escape workplace triggers and give yourself a break from stress, there is still the chance of a let-down headache. Sometimes, when people take vacation and remove themselves from a stressful situation, the reduction in stress itself can act as a migraine trigger.

So if a migraine sets in right when you least want one – in the middle of a holiday – what can you do?

Here are some things to keep in mind to help ease the impact of a holiday migraine:

1. Lean on loved ones
The holidays are a time when we are surrounded by the people we care about and who care about us. Be clear about asking for what you need and communicating how loved ones can best be there for you. That might mean keeping you company while you stay in, refreshing your ice packs, or giving you space while you rest in a dark, quiet room.

2. Retreat to a peaceful place
When in the midst of pain and other debilitating symptoms, you will likely not want to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle. So find a quiet room where you can get comfortable and rest – away from the bright lights, loud voices, music, and stress.

3. Turn to your emergency kit
Use your go-to treatment options, whether that means abortive medications, essential oils, ice packs, eye masks, Rehaler, or others. If you can, take your rescue meds as soon as possible at the first sign of an attack, so that you have the best chance possible of returning to the festivities.

4. Find a way to stay in the Christmas spirit
Whether you can light a few cozy candles, listen to gentle Christmas carols, or watch a holiday movie with a loved one, find a way to enjoy the festive cheer – even if it isn’t the way you might have expected.

Conclusion

Preparation and planning is key to a migraine-free holiday. If you can, try to work with your family and friends to control as many variables as possible. Choose migraine-friendly activities to participate in, design migraine-safe meals, and opt out of events that don’t push your own limits.

So get into the holiday spirit, surround yourself with the people you love, take care of yourself, and enjoy as many moments as you can this holiday season!

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