Dealing With Focal Migraines When You Have Health Anxiety
A migraine isn’t just a headache when you also suffer from health anxiety: here’s how the focal migraines I’ve suffered since I was 18 years old can affect my mental health…
As much as I love summer, it doesn’t always love me: especially the kind of thundery, humid weather than can be common in this part of Scotland during the so-called summer months. The thundery weather gives me migraines, you see. Migraines give me health anxiety. Health anxiety gives me stress. Stress gives me migraines. And the beat goes on…
Other things that can – but don’t always – give me migraines:
Cheese (very occasionally)
Supermarkets (The one I use most often has flickering strip lights and acres of reflective white floor. It’s migraine-tastic, baby!)
Meatloaf albums. (OK, not these, but they do give me pain, which is the same thing…)
But mostly thunderstorms and stress, really.
One thing I’ve learned over the years, though, is that none of these triggers will normally be enough to cause a migraine on their own. I mean, most of the time I can walk around the supermarket and be absolutely fine. Put me under those flickering strip lights on a day when it’s thundery outside, I’m stressed and my period is due, though, and I cam practically guarantee one: which is all kinds of fun, let me tell you.
My last migraine, for instance, started when I was busy cleaning the kitchen with bleach (Other things that can trigger migraines: strong smells), having just eaten a cheese salad, and while fretting about how the hell I was supposed to find time to do all of the things I had to do that day and also: clean the kitchen with bleach. I turned around from the dark living room to the kitchen window, which was filled with sunlight (Bright lights, you see) and WHAM! Migraine now arriving, please clear your schedule…
Of course, being the hypochondriac that I am, I was immediately convinced that, even although the flashing lights and blind spots in my vision were exactly the same as every other migraine I’ve ever had, this was not, in fact, a migraine at all, but was a brain tumour. “Terry,” I called, panic stricken, “come quickly, I’m having a brain tumour”. The divorce comes through in a few months, apparently, and Doctor Amber is available for consultations any time you like.
I spent the next few days feeling delicate, like the heroine in a Jane Austen novel, and being brought tubs of ice cream. (Note: ice cream doesn’t actually help with migraines, I just like it). None of this had anything to do with the migraine, however: no, it was all down to my old friend health anxiety – which makes focal migraines absolutely terrifying to me, even although I know perfectly well that they’re JUST migraines, and NOT brain tumours.
How do I know this?
The doctor told me. And then another doctor told me. Also a third doctor. Then Terry told me: many, many times. Then my parents. Then back to Terry. Then Google… which disagreed with ALL of those people, and solemnly informed me that, actually, I probably DID have a brain tumour. So, back to square one I went: and this has been pretty much the story of my life, from the moment I had my first focal migraine, at the age of 18.
One of the strangest things about all of this, meanwhile – to people who DON’T suffer from health anxiety, that is – is that the migraines I get aren’t even particularly bad ones. No, I’m very lucky – and slightly unusual – in that I mostly suffer from what’s sometimes described as ‘silent migraine‘: a migraine which doesn’t include the kind of crippling headache that most people associate with the word ‘migraine’. SOME of my migraines do come with headaches – and the ones that do are always hell on earth – but the majority simply involve the visual disturbances (Or ‘migraine aura’ – which, in my case, starts with blind spots in my vision, and then progresses to a kind of bright, jagged circle, which, over the space of around 10 – 15 minutes, will turn into a wavy line in my peripheral vision, before disappearing: if you look at the Google images search results for ‘migraine aura’, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about…), followed by nausea, and an odd, indescribable feeling of being “not quite right”.
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I mean, it’s hardly the end of the world, is it? In fact, any time I speak to someone who suffers from what I think of as ”real” migraines – i.e. the kind that are so painful you have to go and lie down in a darkened room for the rest of the day – I always feel quite embarrassed by my silly little silent migraines.
Silly or not, though, the fact is, when you suffer from health anxiety, ANY kind of health issue is terrifying, and, for me, the migraine aura I experience is particularly scary: so much so, actually, that it’s taken me most of my adult life to be able to accept that it’s JUST a migraine, and not the brain tumour I’ve always suspected. Throughout my twenties and early 30s, a single migraine could last 20 minutes (In terms of the aura, anyway: the nausea and ‘wiped-out’ feeling generally last for the rest of the day…), but then ruin an entire week as I worried endlessly about what had caused it, and whether it had REALLY been just a migraine. There’s just something about losing my sight that makes me absolutely panic – even when I know perfectly well what’s causing it – and, every single time those flashing lights start up (Honestly, even the phrase “flashing lights in my vision” makes me panic…), I convince myself it’s never going to stop, and that THIS time will be the time when it turns out NOT to be just a migraine after all. So, yeah, it’s a lot of fun, really.
I remember one day in my twenties, I actually had THREE attacks in one day (A very stressful day, in which multiple triggers all managed to combine at once, creating the perfect conditions for cluster migraines…), and I was so terrified by this that I literally couldn’t function. It was one of the worst episodes of health anxiety I’ve ever had, and I spent most of the week either lying in bed, convinced my “brain tumour” would rupture if I tried to move, or staring round the room, frantically trying to assess my vision, and establish whether or not another aura was about to start.
After that, I went back to the doctor: or, rather, was dragged there by Terry. My health anxiety is the kind that makes me want to avoid doctors and medical situations at all costs (I’m always convinced they’re going to tell me I’m dying, as soon as I walk through the door. In fact, last week I answered a call from our local doctor’s surgery, and even although it’s been almost two years since I last saw a doctor there, I STILL instantly started to panic, thinking they must be calling to tell me I had cancer or something. Yes, I am very, very aware of how stupid that sounds, trust me…) (Oh, and they were just calling to speak to Terry about a regular prescription – just in case you’re worrying…), but, at this point, even I had to admit that I needed help, so I went to see the doctor, and tearfully informed him that I’d had three migraines in one day, and wanted to know what it might possibly mean.
“You seem very distressed by this,” the doctor told me, smiling kindly. “Why is that?”
It was at that point that I suddenly saw, with complete clarity, how utterly ridiculous I was being – and that this thing that seemed SO terrifying to me, was actually quite run-of-the-mill to the doctor in front of me, who dutifully examined me, and asked me lots of questions, before telling me he was as certain as it’s possible to be that I did NOT have a brain tumour – but that he WOULD recommend counselling.
Well, it made sense, really.
I’d love to be able to end this post by telling you that the counselling helped, and that I’m now 100% cured. Actually, though, it didn’t: counselling for health anxiety has never made even the slightest difference to me, and while I realise it can be tremendously helpful for some people, and would always recommend giving it a go, I’m not going to lie and say it worked.
What DID work in helping me accept that sometimes I have migraines, but they’re not going to kill me?
Just time, really: it’s as simple – or as complicated – as that. What I’ve learned from almost a lifetime’s worth of health anxiety is that no amount of reassurance from friends and family helps me: and reassurance from doctors only helps me in the short term, until I start worrying that they’ve made a mistake, or that I haven’t given them enough information, and the anxiety kicks in again. The only thing that DOES work, meanwhile, is time: and, in the case of me and my migraines, I’ve had plenty of that: so much, in fact, that I’ve gradually reached a point where I no longer panic at the first sign of blank spots in my vision, and, once the migraine is over, I’m able to just get on with my life, as if nothing happened. My younger self would never have believed that could be possible, so I’ve come a long way, really, and while I can’t help wishing I’d gotten here faster, I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the knowledge that I got there in the end.
My migraine-related anxiety might be more-or-less under control these days, but it doesn’t take much to tip me over the edge again, so I’d like to politely request that no one leave comments on this post saying, “Oh, my mother’s auntie’s cousin’s dog’s sister used to get migraines, but it turned out she had a brain tumour and then she died!” Trust me, I don’t want to know…