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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?