College presents a lot of unique challenges, particularly for a person dealing with chronic migraine. From a college graduate and fellow chronic migraineur – this is the most comprehensive guide for getting your degree in a (relatively) painless way.
College was a learning curve in many ways and I found that sticking to headache hygiene practices in a college environment was difficult. This guide is intended to be a compilation of all the things I learned to do that were helpful to have academic success, a social life, and general satisfaction with the college experience.
The most important thing to remember is that you know yourself best. Chronic migraine as an invisible illness means that no one can visibly see your pain. So self-advocacy and being proactive are absolutely essential. Your newfound independence as a college student also comes with the responsibility to take care of yourself.
The following guide is broken down into four categories; academic planning, classes, personal life, and social life. My hope is that it will be a resource for tips and a source of inspiration for addressing your own needs as a university student with chronic migraine.
Academic Planning for College Students with Chronic Migraine
This section covers college academics in a broader sense like scheduling, advisors, and accommodations. Planning ahead and being proactive about finding campus resources are steps to take early on in the semester or even before the semester begins to set yourself up for success. Your plans A, B, and C are subject to change, but organizing not just for the current semester but with an eye on your future semesters creates a structure to your workload and schedule to feel manageable alongside chronic migraine.
1. Contact your school’s disability services office.
Get in touch with the disability services coordinator or someone similar to explore what resources your university provides. There is likely an entire protocol to apply for accommodations or other services so it’s definitely best to begin sooner rather than later. My school was adamant that accommodations could not be provided retroactively. I had an extra absence and extension for each of my classes that I had to request each semester. Accommodations, such as excused absences, rescheduling tests, and assignment extensions, vary but they are a great safety net.
2. Schedule classes intentionally (to the extent you can) to manage chronic migraine and practice headache hygiene.
Since keeping to a routine is part of good headache hygiene, keep in mind what type of schedule works best for you. Morning or afternoon classes? Big block periods or spread out with a lot of breaks? Class offerings may limit your options, but the course catalog or an email to specific departments will tell you what classes are offered and when. By considering your future course requirements, you reduce the likelihood of getting trapped in a schedule that doesn’t work for you.
3. Your advisor is there to, well, advise you.
Though college advisors have a reputation for being busy with a ton of students, it’s still worth it to meet with them. Begin by letting them know that you a) want to succeed academically and b) are dealing with a chronic illness. When I disclosed that I had chronic migraine to my advisor, he referred me to a university office for student success and they helped me out a lot. Ask your advisor about any academic resources they recommend, advice on planning your courses, or really any questions you have about school. Bringing questions and potential ideas for solutions to your meetings with advisors or class deans will help them help you.
4. Know what to look for on Rate My Professor.
Usually, it’s the people who absolutely loved or hated a professor who contribute to their reviews. Look specifically for a professor’s expectations, for example, do they require class participation, assign a ton of reading, or have weekly quizzes? This information can inform how you build your schedule and anticipate your workload. The absolute best way to get the dirt on a class or professor is to befriend an upperclassman (especially in your major) and ask them.
5. Be forewarned that midterms and finals are always the most stressful times of the university semester.
These busy periods are when all your planning and organization will be most important and useful. Time management skills are necessary to develop in college because most of your time is unstructured, unlike high school.
6. Summertime is an opportunity.
Chronic migraine is time-consuming, stressful, and taxing. Taking summer classes or internships are ways to spread out your workload and time commitments. But definitely take the time commitment into consideration. The eight-hour daily organic chemistry course I tried to take one summer didn’t work out because one day lost to migraine was nearly impossible to make up. The following year, however, I took a class that was only three hours long and ended up being able to graduate on time!
7. When you need help managing college with chronic migraine, ask for it!
This sounds obvious, I know. College can be hectic so an occasional check-in with yourself may help you to recognize a problem before it becomes unmanageable. Check when add-drop and withdrawal dates are each semester and set checkpoints with yourself for a week or so beforehand. Is your current course selection manageable? Based on your syllabi, do you think it will continue to be? When it comes to taking care of yourself, trust your gut. Take a break when you need to. Rest. Ask for help. Rely on your support system. Coming from my experience, trying to ignore chronic migraine only made it worse.
Succeeding in College Classes as a Student with Chronic Migraine
This section discusses how to approach academic life with chronic migraine, including individual courses, schoolwork, exams, professors, and classmates.
1. Get to know your professors.
If you have accommodations for class, you’ll want to make sure you’re on the same page with your professors about that protocol. Introduce yourself either way. Go to office hours or just have a quick chat after class when everyone is filing out. Building a relationship with your professor will help you get more out of the class and professors are much more inclined to work with students who have identified themselves as wanting to learn and succeed.
2. Demonstrate who you are as a student.
This is dependent on your own work ethic BUT establishing yourself as a hardworking, attentive, and diligent student really can only benefit you. Asking a professor for an extension or whatever you need is much more likely to be approved if you have demonstrated in the past that you are a good student with chronic health issues getting in the way and not someone trying to get out of doing your work. You don’t need or want an adversary!
3. Read the syllabus.
Know exactly what to expect and, as mentioned earlier, plan ahead. “Sylly week” is fun but it takes only an hour or so to read through all your syllabi. Organize your semester in whatever way works best for you; handwritten planner, Google calendar, Notion, etc. Identify times in the semester when your schedule will be hectic so you can be prepared. Is there a super busy day or week coming up that you can prepare for? Are there any days with multiple quizzes, papers, or exams? How many readings do you have to do each week and about how long will it take you to read them?
4. Anything is better than an all-nighter.
The best way to avoid having to pull an all-nighter is to front-load your work. Every assignment is already outlined in your syllabus, meaning that you can do those assignments whenever you choose. In my last year of college, I tried to stay a week ahead on my work. It didn’t always work perfectly but it really helped me manage my stress levels. I did some weird things like outlining final papers in the first few weeks of class but, hey, one less thing to do come finals week was a win.
5. Make a friend in each class.
On the first day of each class (or sometime early on), sit next to someone and introduce yourself. Suggest sharing contact info so if one of you misses class then you can get the notes. This creates an additional resource beyond what your professor provides and you might actually make a real friend!
6. When you can, work!
Procrastination is a tough beast. The habit of chipping away at your work (even in small bits!) when you feel well enough will allow you to take care of yourself and rest when you really need to.
7. If you do fall behind, don’t beat yourself up for it.
Staying on top of work, let alone ahead of it, is a huge challenge with chronic migraine. Look for a space without distractions when you need a super productive catch-up day like a distant corner of the university library. Make time for breaks because that can actually increase your productivity.
8. Keep your migraine survival kit with you AT ALL TIMES.
Pop all your medicines, remedies, and migraine devices in a small pouch that you can put in whatever bag you carry. A snack and water are also good to keep on hand. You’ll always have what you need when a migraine hits and you’ll be grateful to have it. Usually, I carry a pill box, peppermint oil, and my Nerivio device.
Thriving in Your Personal Life While Attending College with Chronic Migraine
This section is all about college outside the academics like living in a dorm with a roommate.
1. Try to keep a regular sleep schedule.
A nap is tempting but can mess with your nighttime sleep. Getting a similar amount of sleep each night and going to bed at a consistent time can help avoid triggering a migraine. It sounds simple but in college, this is a tricky challenge. Parties and your social life have a tendency to compete with what is best for your optimal sleep cycle. There are wearable devices or phone apps that can help track your sleep so you can identify how much sleep you need and when you are or aren’t getting enough sleep.
2. Find nutritious food that you actually like.
Campus dining options can vary widely in quality at different schools. If you stick to a certain migraine diet then finding good food is even more important. A mini fridge in your dorm makes it easy to store your favorite foods and snacks, that way food is easily accessible when you’re having an attack or when you’re super busy.
3. Explore the tech that’s out there for managing migraine.
Consult your doctor and try migraine remedies for things to have on hand or in your dorm to help you. There are oils, acupuncture mats, devices, lamps, massage tools, wearable ice packs, heating pads, glasses, supplements, and more. There are also computer programs like f.lux that can dim your screen on a timer and remove blue light if you struggle with light sensitivity.
4. Talk to your college roommates about your chronic migraine.
Roommates don’t have to be your BFFs (they can be) but you do need to coexist. Communicate with your roommates about your needs that are specific to migraine. Do you need absolute silence? Does the room need to be pitch black? By having this conversation they can be aware of your situation. If they don’t respect your wishes then go speak to your RA. Eye masks and ear plugs can be lifesavers but gutting it out with a disagreeable roommate will not work.
5. Make time to decompress and de-stress.
Making time to relax – whether it’s walking, watching movies, seeing friends, or doing something creative – is beneficial to decreasing overall stress. College is a lot of go, go, go so it’s all the more important to take a breath too. A neurologist once told me to do a 45-minute meditation every day. Years later, I began doing 5-10 minute morning meditations instead and I’ve continued the practice ever since.
6. Getting run down and potentially triggering a migraine just isn’t worth it.
College is challenging but that “sleep when you’re dead” mentality that a lot of students have is just nonsensical for someone with chronic migraine.
7. Remember what you CAN control is how you treat and take care of yourself.
It can be hard to accept that your college experience may look a bit different from your friends. That does not mean that you should sacrifice your health for any idea of a “perfect” college experience. A little bit of patience and kindness with yourself goes a long way. You don’t have to be perfect and college is a ton of fun, even with chronic migraine.
How to Have a Social Life as a College Student with Chronic Migraine
The college social scene has a reputation for mainly two things; meeting your lifelong friends and parties, parties, parties. In a new environment, there is so much opportunity for both. With chronic migraine in the mix, there are ways to adapt.
1. Join a club!
Colleges have a club for anything and everything. Many groups are low-responsibility and meet once a week. Clubs can help you create a routine, make friends with common interests, and find a reprieve from your academics. I joined a dance performance group that rehearsed a few nights a week for exercise, socializing, creativity, and recreation.
FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is not your friend. You deserve a fun and fulfilling college experience. Comparing yourself to others won’t do that for you. There is no “right” way to be a college student. Be open to new experiences and take care of yourself without shame. If you have a tough week, staying in is the best decision. Trust me, the exact same people are having the exact same party next weekend . . . or maybe even tomorrow!
3.Friends do come and go.
New friends are something to be excited about and they can become part of your support system too. Chronic migraine can put a strain on friendships when attacks keep you from being present all the time. It can also be stressful to explain your condition to new friends. Remember that it’s not your job to make someone else understand and accept you. I felt horrible when the friendships I made during my first year drifted away, but ultimately I was able to find lasting friends.
4. And finally, parties.
Whatever nightlife places you enjoy – frats, house parties, bars, clubs – are likely full of potential triggers, but there are migraine-friendly ways to participate (also applicable to darties/daygers).
Alcohol can be a migraine trigger. Know that good and nice people will not judge you or pressure you to drink in the slightest, especially because your choice to drink or not drink is not a commentary on them. A mixer, mocktail, or other non-alcoholic beverage in a solo cup can help you avoid questioning. If you do drink alcohol, food and water are a must. Having some water between each drink and a big glass before you sleep is a good practice and will reduce hangover symptoms.
Loud music and lights are also potential triggers. Admittedly, I never figured out a way to deal with the booming music at parties and just stomached it. You could hide earplugs with your hair or an artfully worn hat (or just embrace wearing them) but I never took on that particular challenge. To fight my light sensitivity, I became a huge fan of party glasses. Party glasses are a cheap pair of sunglasses that you don’t mind getting lost or stolen or broken. I accumulated a bunch of fun pairs during college that I would throw on and head out, night or day.
The creation of this guide comes from a very personal place. After my first year of college, I felt defeated and exhausted. That summer I was formally diagnosed with chronic migraine. I can remember searching online for resources on how to deal with chronic migraine in college. The listicles I found were sparse and simplistic, and made me fearful that college was impossible for me. That is why, now that I have graduated, I want to pass on what I learned to others who have those same questions, doubts, and fears.
How have you coped with life as a college student with chronic migraine?
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