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Emotional Whac-A-Mole (Plus Lots of Untethered Anxiety)

After my therapist noted that I was emotionally shut down, particularly when talking about certain topics, I read Depression Part Two from Hyperbole and a Half with trepidation, wondering if I was once again in a depression without realizing it. Fortunately, my fish aren’t dead, they’re just hiding from me.

The last couple weeks have been filled with emotional Whac-a-Mole. An emotion pops up, but as soon as I notice it, it ducks underground again. They disappear so quickly that there’s no chance for me to knowingly knock an emotion out. When I described this to my therapist, she said to think of it as a subconscious protection mechanism (though she didn’t use those particular words). To keep myself from being overwhelmed by emotion, especially when a migraine attack commands my attention, I unwittingly developed a strategy to protect myself.

By far, anxiety has been the most prominent emotion I’ve had since starting therapy. It was free floating until my last session. Since then, “What is happening to my skin? Where is that protection when I need it?,” which are lyrics from another Talking Heads song, have been running through my mind. They so perfectly articulate my fear that returning to the world of emotional experience will mean peeling off my skin, exposing every nerve ending to the sadness of the world.

Thus far in my adult life, I’ve either been emotionally flayed open or closed off. I didn’t know it was possible to experience an emotion without being carried away by it, nor did I know I could choose to feel an emotion or distract myself from it. While I now know this is possible, I don’t yet have the skills necessary to manage my emotions. I first have to learn how to feel and sit with them. It is slow going, for sure, but I no longer feel as if I have to climb Mt. Everest yet again. I am seeing it more as a process, removing layer after layer to get to the heart of the matter.

I drafted this post last Thursday, the day after my last therapy session. I’m pleased to say that this week has been much less anxiety-ridden. I now trust that I can be open to emotions without being flayed open. Interestingly, I’ve also begun thinking of the work I’m doing in therapy not as monumental effort or even removing layers, but as the normal work of life. It has already become easier to notice and experience my emotions. They still hide quite a bit, but I’m definitely seeing progress from week to week. This afternoon is another therapy session… wonder what I’ll find today.

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Stumbling Upon a Therapist

“It seems to me you have two equally important things going on: chronic migraine and grief about what chronic migraine has meant for your life.” With those words, the naturopath I saw Friday became my new therapist. Although I knew before the appointment that she practices as both a therapist and naturopath, counseling was not on my agenda. However, anyone who can see so readily that the emotional component of chronic migraine has affected me as deeply as the physical illness is someone I need to talk with.

Throughout the two-hour initial appointment, I kept mentioning things I wrote about last week. Like that the emotional toll of chronic migraine is enormous. That almost all my emotional and physical strength goes into taking care of myself, thus continuing my isolation from others. That I’m envious of successful women my age because I believe I, too, should be able to support myself and pursue my dreams. That for the first 10 years of chronic daily headache, no one believed I had a physical illness. Although I told the naturopath repeatedly that I’m so much better off emotionally now than I was a few years ago, the fact that everything I just mentioned was so fresh in my mind that I felt the need to write about it just last week indicates I’m not as “over it” as I thought I was.

I’ve been to therapists in the past, some of whom have been helpful with other issues, but no one seemed to really get what it means to for a young, intelligent, ambitious woman to be rendered housebound by a debilitating chronic illness. (The last one I saw thought I needed help setting goals and following through with tasks. If only it were that simple!) I’d thought this was a failing of the therapists, but now I wonder if the problem was in how the appointment was structured.

Every time I see a new therapist, I introduce the role of migraine in my life by describing all the ways I try to live a good life despite chronic illness. I always came out looking strong and motivated. I wasn’t misrepresenting myself, but was focusing on the positive — because who wants to meet anyone new and tell them all the bad stuff right off the bat? Besides, unless I’d just had an acute emotional crisis, the hard parts are rarely at the top of my mind. Usually such a crisis would spur me to make the appointment, but by the time I saw the therapist three or four weeks later, I’d moved on.

Meeting with the naturopath was more like a standard medical appointment. I started describing my symptoms and what my life looks like with migraine as such a large component of it. Because I wanted to convey the gravity of the physical experience (though I made sure to tell her that I’m so much better than I used to be), I was willing to address unpleasant aspects I’ve held back from therapists in the past.

I’ve long advocated for people with chronic illness to see a therapist, though I readily admit finding someone who understands the complexities of it is difficult. The best advice for finding a good therapist I’ve been able to give is to ask your doctors. But I’ve also always assumed the therapist sets the tone for the sessions. Maybe the person who is receiving counseling is responsible for determining the conversation’s course.

Based on my very recent experience, I’m going to change my recommendation. Yes, ask your doctor and check Psychology Today for therapists who specialize in chronic illness, but also keep a running list of issues that are bothering you. Perhaps write in a journal and see what comes up — I often don’t know what’s eating at me until I see the words written on the page. The most intuitive therapists may be able to figure out what you need to talk about all on their own, but you’re the only one who truly knows what’s bothering you.

I’m writing this advice as much for myself as for anyone seeking guidance on getting the most out of talking with a therapist about chronic illness. I’ll let you know how it works out after a few sessions.

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Hey There

Reading is back to being a ginormous trigger. Ideas for posts are constantly percolating so it is particularly frustrating. Hart is looking into dictation software and I hope to get back to writing soon.

The migraines are still bad, though my pain level topped out at 4 two days last week. I’m seeing a therapist and taking huge steps toward understanding myself, depression and the influence of illness on my life. She recently directed me to information on the “highly sensitive person.” The framework fits me well and the potential connections to migraine are immense. I’m looking forward to telling you more!

I hope you’re doing well as well as possible.

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Hypnotism “Legitimate” Health Care Treatment

Hypnotism is becoming a more mainstream medical treatment, particularly for pain management, according to the Mayo Clinic Health Letter. It also has a track record of being an effective headache treatment. From the Mayo Clinic:

“A trance often can be induced most quickly in people who are in severe pain. A therapist may suggest that the pain will fade or that an area of pain will become numb. In some cases, hypnosis works as well or better than pain-relieving medications.

“Hypnosis is generally considered safe, but it only works in patients who are compliant. In other words, hypnosis can’t make people act against their own wills. Psychiatrists, psychologists and other health care providers with training in hypnosis can offer medical hypnotism. It’s important to verify that the therapist has experience in treating the medical condition, too.”

In Hypnosis: An Altered State of Consciousness, another Mayo Clinic article, hypnosis and its application to health care is well-described, including what it is, who it’s for, how it works. It also debunks common myths.

The emphasis placed on finding a good provider got my attention. One article says that you should be as careful in finding a hypnotherapist as you are in choosing a doctor.

Hypnosis as a practice is not regulated in most states, so it pays to be very careful when selecting a therapist. Certified lay
hypnotherapists are individuals who have completed 200 or more hours of training in hypnosis but don’t have additional professional health care training. Licensed health care professionals who practice hypnotherapy, such as psychologists, doctors and social workers, are trained in
hypnosis in addition to their university training.

Apply the same care in choosing a hypnotherapist as you would a doctor. Ask someone you trust for recommendations. When you find a potential hypnotherapist, ask questions such as:

  • Do you have training in a field such as psychology, medicine, social work or dentistry?
  • Are you licensed in your specialty in this state?
  • Where did you go to school, and where did you do your internship, residency or both?
  • If you’re a lay hypnotist, how much training have you had and from what school?
  • What professional organizations do you belong to?
  • How long have you been in practice?
  • What are your fees?