I’ve discussed in previous articles the idea that emotional history (past and present) can be a significant factor with chronic migraines. That’s not to, in any way, ignore the relevance of neuroscience and medical factors that could also be happening. For some, medication is very helpful. However, for many chronic migraine sufferers, medical treatments often provide only moderate to sometimes very little help.
Migraine sufferers often are able to identify concrete triggers for migraines — such as certain foods, weather, hormonal shifts, physical exertion, muscle tension, and others. But even when these types of triggers are identified and managed (or altogether eliminated), it’s often only part of the picture. Migraine sufferers can lower the frequency of occurrences by identifying these concrete triggers, but many still suffer from migraine attacks.
After concrete triggers are identified, why are migraines still happening?
This is where emotional history becomes more relevant. There are many possibilities for how emotions can translate into migraines — and for each person it works differently. For some it can be chronic overwhelming levels of stress, or it can be depression, obsessive thinking, overwhelming anxiety, emotional volatility, different types of dissociation, trauma, etc.
Migraines, and other forms of non-organic chronic pain can be a ‘silent voice’ for something else. For many migraines sufferers, the migraine environment is formed at a young age, as we develop with surroundings that continuously fuel the internal environment for migraine attacks.
The idea of the ‘silent voice’ is that migraines can be articulating experiences in our history that we haven’t yet been able to formulate into conscious thoughts or words.
Consider the idea that we all carry our emotional pasts in some way, on an unconscious level. We live experiences and collect them, and our brains continue to adjust based on these experiences, even if we’re not conscious of these adjustments.
For example, if growing up you knew that you would be spanked for questioning your parents, you might recoil in fear when questioning them. Even if they weren’t go to spank you this particular time, you might have found yourself still recoiling in fear simply because you questioned them. This recoil is your brain making an unconscious adjustment to your surrounding environment.
However, at times, we end up taking in experiences that are beyond our ability to consciously comprehend. For example, seeing your parents argue as a young child, or a collection of small traumas, or larger scale traumas, or anything that can be experienced as too threatening, or too difficult (emotionally) to turn into conscious thought. Consider a child who is constantly living in fear of an abusive parent, or someone who is bullied. We constantly react and respond to the fear with internal and external adjustments (ruminations, observing, planning escapes, hyper vigilance, etc.). And sometimes, situations are too much to bear, and we completely dissociate from them…pushing those painful experiences off to the side.
As we continue to live our lives, these types of events build up. The experiences start out as raw emotion — for example, anger. If anger feels like an unacceptable emotion to us, we may cover it up by smiling, or being more nice — in some way not allowing ourselves to actually experience the anger. Though we experience the anger on an unconscious level, it hasn’t necessarily turned into thought because sometimes the conscious thought would be too threatening, or we possibly don’t have the capacity to translate the experience into thought because it was too removed from the world we know (for example, witnessing a murder is so far removed from someone’s functioning world that there is no capacity to make emotional sense of it. It becomes a trauma).
These experiences all leave marks and carry unconscious, disconnected, and unspoken emotion. The pain and suffering from these experiences haven’t found a voice. What often ends up happening is some sort of physiological manifestation since the mind becomes unable to hold the burden.
Essentially, the migraines end up doing the talking — for example saying, “I’m hurting, I’m in pain, I’m confused and overwhelmed.” (Incidentally, this can also be seen with IBS, Crohn’s, and other physiological issues that are believed to have at least some emotional basis).
Being able to find the voice to consciously articulate and connect these internal (and external) experiences becomes a key component in resolving these raw experiences that people carry within them. This is where psychotherapy, and even trauma therapy, can make a significant difference. This allows us to unlock these experiences and give them a voice, and provides a deeper understanding of what has contributed to who we are today — psychologically, emotionally, and physically. Having this knowledge of our patterns, and bringing in a new relational environment (how someone responds and relates to us) can create changes in our physiological responses as we rewire pathways in the brain (neuroplasticity). Ultimately, the aim is to relieve migraines by freeing ourselves from these emotional burdens.