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Numbing to Difficult Emotions Through Migraine(?)

Could migraine attacks be my body’s way of numbing itself to strong emotions? “What a load of crap” is my typical response when someone broaches this subject. And yet today I find myself working with my accidental therapist on this hypothesis.

Some important points I must address before continuing.

  1. Migraine is a neurological condition that is not caused by emotions, repressed or otherwise. If emotions play a role in my migraine attacks, they are a trigger, not a cause.
  2. An emotional component is unlikely to explain the frequency and severity of my migraine attacks, however it could explain one part of my migraine puzzle.
  3. If this hypothesis is true, it does not mean that everyone (or, in fact, ANYone) else has an emotional trigger for migraine.

OK, back to the story.

Two weeks ago my therapist noticed that I expressed no emotion when telling sad stories and said she thought I was shut down emotionally. I balked. I cry at everything, how could I be disconnected? A couple days later, I realized she was right. Somewhere in the last year or two, I stopped being devastated by world events. I thought I’d found a healthy way to cope. Coping? Yes. Healthy? Nope.

I’ve listened to enough Tara Brach and Pema Chödrön to know that the only way to deal with an emotion is to feel it. So, over the next few days, when I felt an emotion, I meditated. I didn’t think about the emotion (my usual strategy, in case you couldn’t tell from my writing), but just felt it. It was very scary, but did not devastate me.

When I saw my therapist last Thursday, she was so excited to see that I’d put the pieces together. I not only recognized I was shut down, but knew how to remedy the situation and had already begun doing what needed to be done. I left thinking that the wide world of emotions was right there, just waiting for me to feel. Talk about scary. Less than two hours after the appointment ended, the longest and most painful migraine I’ve had in months came on.

Yesterday I dragged myself to see the therapist despite the migraine that hadn’t abated since it hit on Thursday. As I sat in the waiting room, I marveled at how the pain was “only” a level 6 and yet I felt like I was going to die.

The therapist (remember, she’s also a naturopath) asked me about when the migraine attack started and if I’d encountered any potential triggers. Then she asked me to describe how I felt at that moment. Among other descriptors, I said it felt like there was a veil between me and the world, that I felt disconnected, physically numb.

Ding! Ding! Ding!

She laid it out for me: I’m a highly sensitive person in a culture (and family) that advocates pretending like difficult emotions don’t exist. I don’t have a toolkit for dealing with these emotions that (used to) overwhelm me. Some people numb their emotions with alcohol, food, or other addictions. Instead of making a conscious decision to disconnect, maybe my body forces numbness by triggering a migraine. The migraine that hit last week may have been my body saying, “Whoa! Slow down!” when my intellectual instinct was to dive into feeling emotions I’ve apparently been suppressing for a while.

When the therapist asked what I thought of all this, I said something along the lines of “Screw that bullshit.” But I was willing to keep an open mind and work with the idea.

The migraine lifted within two hours of the appointment’s end. No hangover or anything, just poof! migraine’s gone. (Though another came on a few hours later.)

I want to believe the magical disappearance of the migraine is a coincidence; yet I also want to believe there’s a connection. That maybe there is an emotional component to my chronic migraines I’ve never considered before. That by learning to feel emotions in a healthy way, maybe I can improve both my psychological and physical well-being.

I’m scared and excited and want to get going. The therapist sees the last migraine attack as a warning to go slowly. I’m not sure I agree, but having a raging migraine won’t help me move forward. The plan is to focus on one emotion at a time (this week’s is frustration) and, when it comes up, sit with it for only three minutes at a time before consciously distracting myself with something else. Looks like I’m also working on that elusive skill of patience.

What do you think? Does this sound like hogwash or a possibility? Have you found an emotional trigger for your migraine attacks?

5 Responses to Numbing to Difficult Emotions Through Migraine(?)

  1. Theresa says:

    It does not sound like hogwash at all. I also find myself to feel numb with a lot of my migraines and sometimes that can sure feel like a blessing when life comes knocking at your door. My sister and I that suffer from migraines (her’s aren’t chronic) are fairly empathetic people so other people’s emotions tend to wash over us pretty harshly, so I don’t see this notion as being crazy at all. Migraines may very well be a safety net for us, a reason for us to pull us into our caves to get away from it all, pull us into the darkness and into ourselves and away from all the stimuli.

  2. Nilofer says:

    I saw a holistic health woman (can’t recall her title) for something other than migraines, however, they came up in conversation so I started talking about their frequency and intensity (this was before gluten-free/dairy-free). She said that I needed to have a spiritual connection to god and that basically, I needed to “get religion”. I thought for a long time about this. Of course, I don’t think that this is true given my cousins/aunts who have migraines and are very religious, but, I think that believing in god might give someone a “tool” with which to deal with the horrible world we live in. Every few months something unthinkable happens and we all find out about it. Well, I too have shut down from strong emotions because I did find them to be a trigger, especially in combination with certain meds. When I was on Birth control pills and nortriptyline simultaneously, my blood pressure was too high and strong emotions pushed it over the edge and I would get a strong, throbbing migraine (not the climbing, slowly building type that food triggers would elicit). Anyway, I don’t think a sensitive person can deal with the world without down-regulating strong emotions. A strong faith that the universe is ultimately just and good would provide a great deal of emotional comfort. How to get this???

    ******
    Getting faith seems like a strange recommendation. I agree it could help and provide comfort, but I’m with you — how do you get it if you don’t already have it?

    Kerrie

  3. Jana says:

    I was seriously NOT open to the idea that my migraines or any type of pain might be influenced or intensified by either repressed emotions or my perfectionistic and very intense personality type. Until several months ago I would have thought of this as a “woo-woo” waaaaay out there concept. I should add that I have dealt with migraines on and off since I was a teenager, and they worsened dramatically in my thirties (I’m now 42) to the point where about five months ago I believed that I would have to dramatically alter my lifestyle and basically become a recluse because of their chronic nature. However, I happened to read about John Sarno’s work on another blog, and decided to check out a few of his books–not to apply the principles to my migraines–but to see if my recently diagnosed spondylolisthesis (lower spine vertebral irregularity)–which surfaced as hip and leg pain at the exact time my mother was going though chemo two years previously–might be helped. Coincidentally, our church was working through a book/workbook series titled “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero. All I can say is that after working through many difficult emotions and past wounds, guided by the Scazzero book, Sarno’s work, and Howard Schubiner’s excellent book “Unlearn Your Pain,” I am 95% pain-free in my lower back, and my migraines have decreased to about two a month (down from 15+ at the end of last year). I should note that I simultaneously also cut out triptans completely, added a daily thirty-minute walk, learned some basic acupressure techniques, and cut out caffeine completely. I’m not sure which of these helped my migraines so much, and at this point I really don’t care. What I DO know now is how to deal with painful feelings–both past and present–and I know that has made me healthier in so many ways. Hope this feedback is helpful . . . I realize that my experience may be unique, but even if it helps one other pain sufferer it’s worth sharing.

    *******
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience. While I am *open* to the idea for the first time in my 25 years of chronic migraine, I am highly skeptical the work I do in therapy will help the migraines. I’m doing it for my emotional health and will be thrilled — and astonished — if I get a result like you did. Your story gives me a little more hope maybe it will help.

    Take care,
    Kerrie

  4. Timothy Bauer says:

    Kerrie:

    As you know-migraines are a neurological disorder.
    Now of course everyone who has severe migraines/should
    do what is healthy-spiritually, mentally, emotionally,
    and physically to help their overall health/especially
    the headaches.

    But Kerrie-am very skeptical the current doctor you
    are going through has the answer-connection between
    emotions and the migraines. As say-it is of course
    always best to try to be in the best of health-s,m,e, and
    physically. But there is very little evidence-if any that
    this is the key to stopping your migraines. I am not saying
    the therapist might not be onto something. But remember to
    let yourself off the hook-Kerrie. Repeat after me-“Your
    are not responsible for the condition are in”. Dont let
    anyone hang a guilt trip on you girl. Have found
    with the various treatments for chronic migraneurs-
    at best any doctor is only guessing. At the current moment
    in time-medicine has a very very incomplete understanding
    of migraines.

    Do the best you can. One day-one hour, one minute, one
    moment at a time.

    Hang in there-Kerrie!!

    Peace,
    Timothy

    ******
    Thanks for your concern, Timothy. I’m not in therapy to treat migraines, but for my emotional well-being. The chance that the work will help my migraines is infinitesimal and I’m not counting on it, nor is the naturopath promising it. It was just an interesting idea I wanted to bring up.

    Kerrie

  5. caroline says:

    I’ve noticed that acknowledging my emotions helps calm my migraines. My family was like yours, no emotions allowed and certainly never discussed, and thus I have zero language to discuss true, deep feelings. My step-sister is a homeopath, and pointed out the connection – when someone empathetic helps guide me through complex emotions my migraines lift a little. Not go away, just get less severe.

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