Art Therapy and Migraine

Art and Migraine: An Interview with Amanda Ingrassia

Art and Migraine: An Interview with Amanda Ingrassia

I’m back with another MSW art therapy for chronic illness interview. Today’s interview showcases artist Amanda Ingrassia and how she uses art therapy for chronic migraine.

Amanda Ingrassia is an advocate in the chronic illness community. She is best known for her work in the Chronic Migraine community, being the founder and Editor in Chief of My Chronic Brain, a magazine devoted to helping Chronic Migraine patients live their extraordinary lives. Amanda, also known as Mia, lives in the southern US with her service dog Genius, and a random chicken that showed up in her backyard one day.

Readers, note that I am using purple to outline my questions which is the color of awareness for migraine disease and headache disorders.

Amanda, thank you so much for joining our series of chronically ill artists. I’m so glad we connected over Twitter and I’m really excited to showcase your art therapy coping skills for our readers today. Let’s get started!

MSW: Can you tell us a little about yourself? When did you first become interested in art?

AI: Hi! I’m Amanda Ingrassia. I became interested in art in my early 20s. I had a lot of emotions I wasn’t sure how to work through. I discovered art gave me an outlet for things I didn’t have words for. 

MSW: Could you tell us a little about the projects you’re working on at the moment?

AI: Right now, I’m really into watercolor and digital arts such as working with Procreate on my iPad.

MSW: How do you use your art to help with chronic migraines?

AI: That’s a really good question! Stress can exacerbate Chronic Migraine, so I often use art to help focus my mind and reduce my stress. I’m on the extreme end of the Migraine spectrum, so I have attacks constantly. (Since 2005!)

MSW: Do you ever create art that describes your pain or your emotional or physical state of being? Would you mind sharing some images with us?

AI: Yes, definitely. Most of my art revolves around expressing things I can’t find words for. In addition to Chronic Migraine, I also have anxiety disorders and depression. Art–especially painting–has really helped me express some of the inner pain that comes with those diseases.

Don’t talk to me” comes to mind. I both love and hate that piece. I painted it in during a really dark time. My anxiety was very poorly controlled, and I both craved human contact and was completely overwhelmed by it. 

Sometimes it sneaks up on me” is another piece that was done around the same time. Here I was living a very successful life on the outside, but I was hiding my Chronic Migraine which was slowly spiraling out of control.

This piece was made using this really thick medium that is almost like honey. It’s hard to control, and when it hits the canvas, it would sink into the paint, pushing it out of the way. It felt heavy and was a pain to clean. It felt so much like what was happening in my mind and body.

MSW: How do you think art could be used for treatment in chronic illness? What benefits could art have to a patient? Do you think art could help health practitioners understand their patients better?

AI: I do. Not to cure, but definitely to help manage. We sometimes bifurcate our health into mental and physical, but we’re single, united beings. I believe that creating things is a unique part of being human. And in creating, we are given an opportunity to express ourselves.

Expressing yourself can really help in managing stress and anxiety, as well as helping you have stronger frameworks for life. Improving how you think and interact with your emotions can have a big impact on how you deal with pain and other physical symptoms.

The benefits between patient and practitioner are a bit blurrier for me, because I’ve never really thought about that aspect. But since art helps us express ourselves, I do think it could help enrich the communication between patients and their health team.

MSW: How have your experiences with chronic illness affected you on a personal level? What would you most like people to know about chronic migraine, especially Hemiplegic Migraine?

AI: Sometimes I feel like I’ve lived two lives: one before my chronic illnesses became so severe, and one after. Chronic Migraine, in particular, completely changed my life. I hid it for a very long time.

People with Chronic Migraine are good at that. We’re good at pushing all of our energy into the public interactions and falling apart at home. I remember being at work on a Friday morning. Collapsing in the afternoon. Spending the weekend in the hospital. And then being back at work on Monday without anyone ever knowing what had really happened. Only that I had “been sick”. I feared that people would view my illnesses as weakness and take advantage of them. 

Hemiplegic Migraine is the most recent of my illnesses.

It was three years ago Thanksgiving week that I had my first attack. When you have a Hemiplegic Migraine attack, your body basically acts like you’ve had a stroke.

I’d bore you if I listed all the symptoms, but the big ones for me include my right side being pretty much useless, losing the ability to properly use language, altered consciousness, and usually a massive headache.

I’ve had so many scans of my brain looking for a stroke or aneurysm that I’ve honestly lost count. My brain looks fine in MRIs and CT scans, but it isn’t.

It’s really hard to have an illness that is so disabling, but doesn’t have a single place where you can point to and say, “There! That’s what’s causing all these issues.

Hemiplegic Migraine is also quite rare. I see a doctor who specializes in Migraine disorders, and he only has a few of us with the diagnosis.

Being online has been marvelous, because it’s given me a chance to connect with others who have it. You feel less… what’s a good word? Less broken I think. You feel less broken when you’re able to share your experiences with someone else and they go, “Yes! I get that too!

MSW: I have never heard of Hemiplegic Migraine until I met you, so now I’m busy looking that up. I also suffer from disabling migraines and it’s really amazing how quickly they can grind everything in your life to a full stop.

Getting back to art, what kind of art supplies do you need on hand all the time? (I know I have my favorites!)

AI: I always have a stylus to use with my iPad. I love the Apple Pencil, but also use a specialized paint brush that works on the screen!

I also keep a small watercolor notebook with me and some brushes. I have a little watercolor travel kit that I’ve made that tucks away nicely into whatever bag I have.

MSW: What is your favorite art medium? Which colors do you like to work with the most?

AI: Hands down acrylics mixed with a fluid medium. I don’t get to use them much right now because the odor from the paints is too much for me. But it’s my favorite.

I love that you start with control, but that the paints do their thing and that it’s ok that they do their thing because it ends up being beautiful. I do pours and then use straws and gravity to guide the paints.

Across the board, I’m drawn to darker, richer colors. 

MSW: What kind of tips would you offer to readers who are interested in starting art as a therapy treatment to chronic illness?

AI: First, I’d cheer on that desire! Art can be such a marvelous addition to your health journey. A few tips then… hmm…

  1. First, art stores can be intimidating the first time you go in, but the folks who work there are usually really awesome people who are all about helping folks explore art. You can ask them pretty much anything, including, “I have no idea what I’m doing but want to try art.” They’ll give you some good guidance.
  2. Second, explore! Don’t give up if you don’t like what you tried. There’s no failure in that. Try different things. There’s also no “wrong” way to do art. If it helps you express yourself, it’s the right way. 
  3. Third, look into a class. Again, the art store is a good resource for finding education. They often have classes. If in-person isn’t possible or your thing (It’s very much not mine), there are excellent resources to teach yourself. Look into various books. Or online classes.

I started with Let’s Make Art this past year and am so glad I did! They have a super watercolor subscription box that walks you through how to paint various things.

You learn new techniques through hands on painting, and the supplies all ship to your door. You also get access to how-to videos on their website and a community via Facebook. YouTube is also an amazing resource.

There are so many how-to and “draw along with me” types of videos available for free there.

Finally, be chill with yourself. You’re not going to be awesome when you first start and that is ok

MSW: What advice would you give to aspiring new artists who are looking for something new to do to help them cope with chronic illness? 

AI: New can be really fun! As you explore options, keep in mind your symptoms and what makes you feel better and worse. 

If odor is an issue, look for low odor mediums or invest in a respirator. Low odor options include things like watercolor, pencils, coloring, collage (try glue dots instead of glue), poetry, dancing, etc.

If you can’t sit up for long periods, find art projects that can be worked on in stages, or consider trying digital art. For stages, watercolor is awesome. There’s dry time between layers where you can rest for minutes, hours, or… Click To Tweet

As for digital art, one of the best investments I made was getting an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

There are so many options for doing art on the iPad. Two of my favorite apps are Paper and Procreate. Paper nicely mimics, well, paper. It’s pretty basic, but I like basic. I do pencil drawings in it.

“Angelina” is one of them. My sister recently gave me Procreate. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I’m comfortable sharing art made in that program, but it’s a very powerful vector program.

It can be a bit overwhelming, so I recommend getting on YouTube and looking for some tutorials. I found Art with Flo to be very helpful when I was starting in that program. She has simple, easy to follow tutorials that help you learn the program by creating various art pieces. 

MSW: Thanks so much for your time, Amanda. I look forward to seeing more of your beautiful artwork and learning more about your advocacy work with migraine patients via A Chronic Brain.

Readers, you can follow Amanda on Twitter @breathemia and Instagram @justbreathemia

I'm a chronically ill Canadian who has been living in Taiwan since 2006. I'm a bit of a jack of all trades! I love art, gardening, flower arranging, reading (that's an understatement if you've seen my GoodReads profile), and snuggling with my cats. Animal videos make me cry. I hate cooking. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my garden bloom! Learning about new cultures and exploring the world has been my thing since I started traveling at age 19. A self-professed autodidact, I can speak comfortably on many different subjects and hold a special place in my heart for science, technology, law, health and medicine, and history. You can find me nerding out at home most of the time due to being chronically ill and housebound. If I'm not engaged in one of the activities listed above, I'm probably building websites. Check my About page under Carrie Kellenberger to learn why I'm taking you on this journey with me through My Several Worlds. I can't wait to get to know you better!


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