Migraines and Headaches: Can Therapy Help?

Migraines and headaches have long been viewed as a purely medical issue. But it’s not necessarily the case. While migraine education and research is constantly expanding, there still is no certainty of what medically causes (or cures) migraines. In fact, even during severe migraine auras, there are often no underlying medical issues detected, and MRIs and CT scans are commonly negative. While medications are prescribed to treat migraines, it is often the case that what migraine sufferers do on their own to understand their headaches may end up being the most effective treatment.

While there are many possible approaches for treating chronic migraines, psychotherapy has generally been low, if even visible, on this menu. However, psychotherapy can actually play a significant role in reducing certain forms of chronic pain, such as migraines and headaches. While people who experience migraines may have a genetic pre-disposition, it’s apparent that many of the triggers for migraines originate from elements of our daily lives — including stress, moods, environment, how we emotionally and relationally handle life’s situations, among others.

Chronic migraines and headaches can often be a symptom caused by a combination of underlying events, many of which may have an emotional/relational basis. This doesn’t mean that you’re not, or shouldn’t be experiencing the pain you are experiencing — it merely indicates that there are more factors that can be driving the chronic pain process than purely medical.

Here are some of the possible benefits of psychotherapy to treat migraines and headaches:

1) Trigger Identification. A therapist can facilitate a cognitive process towards understanding the elements of our environment that can trigger a headache. This includes identifying patterns from anything such as meal content and sleep habits, all the way to habitual emotional and coping processes.

2) Trigger Elimination. As patterns and possible triggers are identified, a therapist can help facilitate and monitor change towards a healthier environment. This can include cognitive and/or behavioral techniques that help remove or diminish the impact of the identified trigger.

3) Stress Reduction. Stress is known to be a significant trigger for headaches and migraines. Therapy is generally a good place to improve stress management, whether or not experiencing physiological symptoms. The reduction of stress on its own can yield positive results with migraines and headaches.

4) Anger Management; Emotional Dissociation. Stored anger (possibly from earlier life events), or a tendency toward bouts of anger can also lead to more migraines and headaches. On a similar level, dissociated and cut off emotions can also be very relevant in the migraine picture. Therapy is an appropriate setting for improving anger management as well as working on underlying emotional dissociation.

5) Rumination Management. Intense amounts of rumination and dwelling is a form of emotional stress that can also result in headaches. Therapy is an ideal setting for processing issues that cause ruminations, as well as improving the mechanism itself that leads to rumination.

6) Relaxation Techniques. People who suffer from migraines often have difficulty fully slowing down and relaxing. It’s common for some people to not actually know or understand the feeling of relaxation, especially if they are commonly surrounded by stress or tension. There are many forms of relaxation techniques that can be learned in therapy, from basic breathing exercises, to meditation and emotive imagery, and others.

7) Processing the Migraines. This component is one that deserves emphasis. Merely dealing with chronic migraines or headaches brings up issues of its own that need to be dealt with. For example, if there is anger or resentment about suffering from migraines, these emotions can possibly lead to a triggering cycle of migraines. There also could be emotions of fear, sadness, frustration, and others that result from having to deal with chronic pain. A migraine struggle can also cause issues with family and intimate relationships — especially if the sufferer feels misunderstood about their condition. For example — a woman discusses that her husband claims a headache “can’t be that bad where you can’t help with the kids.” Having a space to be able to be heard and discuss management of these issues can be beneficial as well.

Obviously, it’s important to rule out any underlying medical issues before calling a therapist for migraine-based therapy. And while there are many possible treatments for migraines, no single method can currently claim to have the cure. It is generally suggested that a combination of approaches can be most effective, and with all of the possibilities that can lead to this struggle, therapy can be a worthwhile consideration as part of resolving migraines.

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