health anxiety

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:

Bright lights
Flashing lights
Hormones
Cheese (very occasionally)
Stress
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.

health anxiety 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”. 

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 

My Health Anxiety Story
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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.

IMPORTANT NOTE:

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…

COMMENTS
  • I’ve been getting migraines for about 11 years, on and off… no brain tumour yet… I have had some DOOZIES though, really unbearable!

    June 24, 2007
  • Stephen

    REPLY

    Feeling any better?

    June 25, 2007
  • Ah, thanks Diane – it’s always reassuring to hear of other sufferers who are not yet dead!

    Stephen – much better now, thanks 🙂

    June 25, 2007
  • I’ve come to the realization that I too suffer from migraines, and they also usually strike in the summer.

    I did wonder why sometimes I’d be in the bright daylight, and my focus would suddenly go off and bright lights would be flashing in front of my eyes.

    This whole distorted vision usually lasted about 45 mins, and there then preceded a really sharp headache-near my temple, behind my eye.

    I always thought migraines were totally debilitating, so didn’t attribute the above to a migraine.

    I know better now 🙁 Oh well, just another thing to add to the catalogue of health problems I suffer from 😉

    Glad you’re feeling better now sweetie xx

    June 25, 2007
  • Polly

    REPLY

    I hear you regarding the ASDA lighting. I just get a really bad pain over my eye sockets and down my nose and then my sight goes all funny and I feel like I want to smash my head really hard against a brick wall to take the attention away from the pain that is going on inside my head so I go and have a lie down. Apparently this is just a normal headache though a a migraine sufferer once informed me. Its not a migraine unless you puke apparently *yawn*

    June 25, 2007
  • Jen – that SO sounds like a migraine. People tend to have this idea that migraine is just a really bad headache, but it isn’t. The headache is actually an after-effect of the migraine: mine aren’t normally any more painful than a “normal” headache (although I’ve had a few bad ones), and some people don’t get the headache at all, just the flashing lights etc. I tend to only get them in the summer, and it’s a combination of the weather and some of the other triggers. You should have a look at the Migraine Association Website (http://www.migraine.org.uk/) – lots of fun bed-time reading there for you 🙂

    Polly – I hate that whole “competitive illness” thing some people do, where they’re all, “Oh no, I actually die for a few seconds when I get a migraine, so you have no idea what’s it like…” Gah. I have never thrown up because of my migraines – the flashing lights are the worst part for me – but they are most definitely migraines (or maybe brain tumours, in my case), and it sounds like yours are too. Damn Asda.

    June 25, 2007
  • hairdoday

    REPLY

    I too am a hypochondriac, suffer from the same symptoms as you do. I work in a hair salon and if the lights hit just right I get a migraine. Three in the past three weeks so like you, I was at the Dr. knowing I had a brain tumor. I have lost 7 lbs in two weeks and am having total health anxiety!!!

    November 2, 2007
  • Earle

    REPLY

    Hmmmm i get them too, havent quite worked out what triggers them though, i just get really pissed off becuase they always ruin my day/night as im sure they do many other peoples joy. I was at a birthday party of all places recently and got one…I told people my eyes were hazy, im sure they thought i was pissed or on drugs, because one moment i was laughing and talkitive and then the next i was dazed, quite and clutching my seat! Anyway it passed and witha few more drinks i reduced the after headache to a dull pain. One season i was getting really bad ones 3 times a week, not sure why. Hope that never happens again. biting nails* & Fingers crossed, good luck with ones guys&gals ~XxX~

    November 9, 2007
  • maz

    REPLY

    hiya! iv been haveing migraines for at least 9yrs.

    ITS BEEN HELL!!!! at first i started passing out in shops like ASDA. but then its progressed to (dizzyness,vomiting,passing out,cant stand light or sound!,i cant speak cos i go realy brain dead!!,numbness,pins & needleds,YA NO DA HOLE HOG!)

    so, your not alone,at first i thought id got epilepsy cos my daughters got it, but then i too thought brain tumor!! but then i thought ,CANT BE COS ID BE DEAD NOW?

    so, its gotta be MIGRAINE. we just av to put up n shut up! DONT WE?

    by the way, my daughters epilepsy, it turned out to be a benign brain tumor! she had it for 8yrs?!

    she had it removed at Oxford & is now fully recovered & is now working!

    well, life goes on & so do i.

    MAZ

    September 15, 2008
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