My Migraines Were a Symptom of Psychological Distress
Sometimes being in therapy feels like I am in a deep haze. The way ahead is uncertain and unclear. Then, unexpectedly, the clouds clear and I'm offered a new perspective on life. Times of uncertainty are common in therapy and at these times huge effort is required to persist – ignoring the voices that insist I am not capable of breaking free from feeling stuck, uneasy and restless.
Therapy has had one concrete and unexpected side effect though – a significant reduction in the weekly migraines of the past 10 years. The throbbing pain and overwhelming inertia that often left me feeling lifeless, has largely lifted – and with it some of the numbness and lethargy.
I didn’t start therapy in a bid to deal with migraines. It hadn’t even occurred to me that spending more than half my time with a migraine probably made it difficult to embrace any kind of joyful life. I had always felt in some way responsible for them. I had – after trying a plethora of pills and finding no respite – resigned myself that migraines were part of ‘me’. When a doctor resorted to suggesting daily beta-blockers for the rest of my life I responded by stopping looking for a solution.
What I have come to understand is that migraines were my body’s attempt to protect itself. Response to threat in the animal world takes either the familiar fight-flight reaction or the opposite, and also dramatic, freezing and immobilization. Migraine is a version of the latter. In Oliver Sacks' book Migraine, in which he offers an explanation of its physical, physiological and psychological basis, he explains that their primary role is “the withdrawal of the whole body from the operation of a noxious or endangering stimulus; in short as a particular form of reaction to threat”. In the face of a threat – which importantly could be psychological as much as physical or physiological – the body shuts down. A self-protection response. A system reset. A tactic to try to avoid further pain.
My body – rather shockingly in hindsight – was spending more than half its time trying to shut down. Not surprisingly that did not engender a lust for life. The numbness, the hiding of emotions, the pretense, the pressure, the fear and shame of just being were regularly tipping my body’s balance towards the threat alarm bell. It seems my migraines were a reaction to the emotional drain, torment and heavy burden I felt – only I did not make any connection between the two.
In his book Sacks concludes: “Migraine shows itself both eloquent and effective in providing an oblique expression of feelings which are denied direct or adequate expression in other ways”. And there lies the key – therapy provided unknowingly, unexpectedly, the forum for the expression of those feelings. Just as Sacks quotes:
“The human body is the best picture of the human soul” – Wittgenstein.