Like so many others who experience migraines, Serena Williams’ migraines became debilitating during lockdown. While she’d had milder migraines for years prior, the stress and conditions of the pandemic triggered worse and longer pain. And because she was a trained athlete, she’d been used to working through it, so she ignored the signs and stressors, thinking the headaches would go away. Fortunately, she sought medical help to help her get back on her feet. The two biggest factors that helped her are setting boundaries and medicine.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March and all of a sudden Serena Williams was spending most of her time at home, trying to entertain her 3-year-old daughter Olympia while getting on hours-long video calls and playing tennis, the milder migraine she dealt with for years suddenly became “debilitating.”
The 23-time Grand Slam champion, 39, came to realize that stress, “or just overworking at my computer” was a major trigger.
While playing in nail-biting tennis matches are “obviously the most high-stress” activities for Williams, she tells PEOPLE she was “just so used to playing through pain.” And those migraine attacks were different from the pandemic migraine attacks she was suddenly facing.
“I think things that I’m not used to — because I don’t usually do it 24/7 — like working on my venture fund and taking care of a child and doing my fashion company,” she says, explaining what triggered her intense migraine attacks.
“I have really good boundaries now, so I know when I’m supposed to do things and what I’m not supposed to do things. So I know when I play tennis, I know when I do my business,” she says. “Migraine are attacks that I don’t try to have.”
Phew – I’m getting a headache just reading Serena’s to-do list! We’ve been discussing how migraines have been getting so much worse during the pandemic. Although most articles have touched on this same reasoning, I like the clarity with which Serena puts it, “I think things that I’m not used to — because I don’t usually do it 24/7.” Not only 24/7, but all at once because it’s all there under one roof. And because it’s all there, demanding our attention, I think many of us did just “play though the pain.” We felt the warning signs, or we knew we should drink another glass of water, but if we just did that one last email or make it through that one Zoom call, we might get five minutes to ourselves before dinner. There was always something wasn’t there?
The medicine the article discussed is Ubrelvy. Serena has an endorsement deal with them so that is the only medication mentioned. Just for clarification, Ubrelvy is a prescription medication intended to stop a migraine if you are already having one. Those types of drugs are a godsend if you end up in a full-blown attack and I always have one on hand. But they aren’t used as a preventative measure. The boundaries Serena talked about are preventative and possibly the most important part of a migraine sufferers health plan. It does stink to have to say no to someone because you’re sick. But it’s a very important lesson to learn. I’ve learned that if I say no to that one activity, I can make it up to whoever later. If I don’t say no, I run the very real risk of making myself unavailable to everyone for the rest of the day and possibly the next due to a migraine, so it’s worth it to say no. Serena is one of if not the best athlete out there. She’s in top shape, fully aware of her body and looks out for herself. If she couldn’t will these migraines away, there is no reason to think we can either.
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