In my previous post, I discussed the underlying emotional environment that can trigger migraines, or keep people who struggle with chronic migraines consistently close to the migraine threshold. There are many possible triggers for migraines, and, for people who struggle with non-organic chronic migraines, emotional history may have significant relevance to this picture.
In my practice, I work with people who struggle with chronic migraines, utilizing a specialized form of psychotherapy that I refer to as “Migraine Therapy.” While each person who comes in is an individual with her or his own history, there are certain themes that tend to accompany the migraine struggle.
Inhibition and Repression
Generally, and somewhat simplistically, speaking, the more emotionally genuine and connected a person can be, the less likely it is that he or she would experience non-organic chronic pain (pain with no identified medical basis). Somatic symptoms, such as migraines, IBS, and others, often can be experienced when certain areas of emotion are repeatedly constricted and repressed.
As an analogy, think of a sink that has, say, 12 faucets, each one representing a different emotion or state of being. For purposes of illustration, let’s assume that at the beginning of life, all the faucets are running. We haven’t developed a sense of right and wrong, and haven’t experienced judgments or criticisms from the world around us. The emotions and states of being are flowing freely, without conflict.
As we develop and grow, we start experiencing consequences of certain states of being that become threatening, or in some way risky, either direct (such as a parent who hits), or indirect (such as a threat to the ego and self-esteem, e.g., being rejected). When we experience enough negativity from certain emotions or states of being, we begin to turn off those faucets that cause repeated pain. (We fear re-experiencing the emotional pain, so we shut down those areas that are painful. Then when we see that shutting down those areas avoids pain, it reinforces keeping those areas of ourselves cut off).
However, what’s crucial in all of this is that the water keeps backing up in the pipes behind the closed faucets. We begin to repress states of ourselves, and become inhibited in certain ways. As this happens, other open faucets become more pronounced, forcing out more water in order to compensate for the faucets that are turned down or off altogether.
As the water collects behind the compromised or closed faucets, the pipes begin to struggle to contain the pressure. At a certain point, the migraine is triggered (whether from pressure buildup on its own, or from a combination of the emotional backup and a secondary trigger).
Where Do You Experience Repression or Inhibition?
There are many possible patterns of inhibition that people can experience. For example, some people have a tendency to make themselves smaller in relationships. Perhaps they were used to having to accommodate larger, sometimes scary or overbearing personalities when growing up.
Another issue is sexual repression. Often (though not always) seen with this is an inability to climax. Hand-in-hand with this issue is a tendency to have trouble with letting go. Thought processes are often overwhelming and at times obsessive (and there is always something new to obsess over). Vulnerability also is difficult to experience without feeling like it would be risking losing total emotional control.
Sexual repression doesn’t necessarily mean there was a sexual trauma in a person’s history — it could be an underdeveloped part of oneself, based on upbringing. For example: a woman in her 30s who was treated as a child throughout her upbringing, even through her adolescent years, because her parents couldn’t make the emotional adjustment to their baby girl becoming an adult. As a result, she has subconsciously cut off the sexual side of herself in response to the parents’ need to keep her a child.
Another common issue is repressed anger. When people have difficulty connecting with appropriate anger or other negative emotions, it’s often because it was threatening to express those feelings growing up. It became self-protective to cut off the emotion. This leads to more passive-aggression (such as sarcasm), and the anger itself becomes repressed.
One important note: Repression and inhibition may seem like qualities of an introverted personality, but some people who are quite extroverted experience migraines as well. People who operate at high energy levels aren’t necessarily living with 12 running faucets. They’re just operating with different faucets running (and not running) than those of introverts. There’s the same chance of repression in both types, even if it plays out differently in each.
These points are just a small sample of how repression can find its way into the migraine picture. Any emotion can be repressed for any number of reasons. It is based on our own personal histories, and is very individual. It isn’t always anger or sex. It can be repression of happiness, sadness, grief, and others.
In the end, it becomes necessary to learn to safely reexperience and integrate the parts of ourselves that were previously shut down. The more the faucets can run in sync, the less pressure there will be, and the energy can flow.