Mind Over Migraines

By Emily Beers – May 3rd, 2018

Fifteen.

That’s how many days Amanda Libke gave up to crippling migraines every month.

“It’s like having a brain freeze that doesn’t go away for two days,” said 40-year-old Libke, who has suffered from chronic migraines since 16.

Migraines affected every aspect of her life: her ability to work, to exercise, to think and even to be a present mother. While some migraine triggers are avoidable—such as red wine, smoke, and processed meat and cheese—the biggest trigger is hormonal, she explained.

“They get a lot worse around my menstrual cycle,” Libke said.

Exercise was another trigger, so she avoided working out and was unfit and unhealthy for many years, she said.

“I was tired, depressed, fat, and I wasn’t there cognitively,” said Libke, who turned to alcohol as a coping strategy. At her heaviest, the 5-foot-8 Libke weighed 216 lb.

Then one day in 2015, a friend of Libke’s mentioned she had been training at WSU CrossFit in Pullman, Washington. This planted a seed in Libke’s mind, and she started looking for CrossFit gyms near her place in Fresno, California.

“My friend has rheumatoid arthritis and she was still doing it,” said Libke, a Grade 9 science teacher.

Her friend inspired her to get fit, but Libke also knew she needed to ditch the victim mentality she had adopted for years.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind, a voice started saying, ‘You’re worth helping. As a mom, a teacher, a daughter, a wife, you’re worth helping.’ I think a lot of times women will put themselves second, but I was worth making myself a priority. I was worth fixing,” Libke said.

“Before, my answer had always been to be on the lookout for new medication to help me. I had just come off another series of medications that made me really sleepy and lazy. I couldn’t even do my job well. So at this point I had had it with doctors and medicine. I needed help.”

ALT TEXTAmanda Libke in 2015.

ALT TEXTLibke (right) in September 2017. (Both: Courtesy of Amanda Libke)

All of this led her to contact CrossFit Fear Average in Fresno in April 2015.

“I went onto the website and sent an email asking for help. When I look back at that email, I sounded so desperate and pathetic. I don’t remember what I drank that night I sent it, but I must have been drinking. I sounded so pathetic,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Libke was fearful because in the past exercise had caused migraines, but that wasn’t going to stop her this time, she explained.

“I was in such a low spot and had tried everything else, and I was done with making excuses like ‘I’m fat and lazy because I can’t exercise,’” she said. “I thought that … (fitness) would help with my depression even if it didn’t fix my migraines.”

She continued: “I was so over worrying about what people thought of me anymore. I decided I just need to walk in there with my fat legs and I don’t care what other people think.”

ALT TEXTLibke started CrossFit with her head down, but the supportive environment quickly brought out her smile. (Mitchell Houle)

At the beginning, Libke showed up at the gym with her head down, not interested in connecting with those around her. But when she realized nobody was judging her, she opened up to the possibility of making new friends. Soon the gym had become a place full of supportive people, and Libke grew particularly close with her coach Stacey Frank.

“The thing that kept bringing me back was my relationship with Stacey,” Libke said. “She has this amazing ability to make you feel like you’ve accomplished something huge even though you know you haven’t, but somehow she does it genuinely.”

Libke added: “She always knows when to pull and when to push. Sometimes we just stretched on the days I couldn’t work out, but still going to the gym those days helped me really form the habit.”

Working with Libke has been a dream, Frank said.

“As a coach, you’re confident that each person can make huge improvements or changes in their life. The difficult part is often getting them to believe they can,” she said. “I have challenged (Libke) to do things that she never may have thought were possible. She always tackled each challenge head on. Watching each component of this growth has been one of the best parts of my fitness career.”

Frank explained that Libke was able to make changes because she was willing to open up and be vulnerable.

“She expressed to me that deep inside she wasn’t this out-of-shape, overweight person she had become … . I was determined to help her find the person that she used to be,” Frank said.

Little by little, Libke was able to find that person again. Part of this transformation included losing 60 lb. At her lightest, she was 145 lb., she said.

“Now I’m 155 pounds, and I’m really happy at that weight.”

Libke said her migraines have subsided considerably in the last two and a half years. She still weathers them about two days a month, which is far better than spending half of every month in pain.

“The intensity is a lot lower, too,” she explained.

Before CrossFit, her migraines had been an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale; now they’re about a 4, she said.

ALT TEXT“I think I’m a good role model for my daughter now. She sees me picking up big heavy things at the gym next to guys who pick up big heavy things.” —Amanda Libke (Mitchell Houle)

And at the gym, Libke has gained strength—she can back-squat 170 lb. and deadlift 235 lb.— speed, endurance and power, not to mention self-confidence. She’s also learning skills she thought were beyond her.

“I’ve been going to gymnastics classes and am learning a back handspring,” she said.

In 2017, Libke participated in a local Highland Games competition and the CrossFit Games Open.

“I was in the top 10 percent of the 35-39 (year-old) division, which I thought was pretty good,” she said of the first stage of last year’s CrossFit competition season. She competed again in 2018, this time in the Open’s 40-44 Division.

All these changes have made for a much happier life.

“It’s night and day. I don’t have the same mental problems—the depression and the cognitive problems. I think I’m a better parent, too. I can go out and play and ride bikes without worrying about getting a migraine. And I think I’m a good role model for my daughter now. She sees me picking up big heavy things at the gym next to guys who pick up big heavy things.”

Libke’s message to others is that change starts with a mindset shift. Once you make that change, life falls into place, she said.

“I would also tell people not to worry about where they’re at when they walk into a box but consider that everyone else there was in your place at one point. They won’t judge you; they’ll congratulate you. Accept yourself where you’re at and know that the people there have been where you are.”

About the Author: Emily Beers is a CrossFit Journal contributor and coach at CrossFit Vancouver. She finished 37th at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.

Cover image: Mitchell Houle

This article was originally published on the CrossFit Journal. You can find it here.

Subscribe to the CrossFit Journal here.

About The Author

Neil Scholtz

Neil Scholtz is a certified Personal Trainer turned CrossFit coach. He has competed at the CrossFit Games and coached athletes that have competed at the CrossFit Games, but that's not his main focus. Most of his time is spent consulting or coaching individuals to improve their lives through fitness. He has worked with over 1000 individuals from various walks of life. Tailoring solutions to their lifestyle needs.