It’s true that stress can be a trigger for headaches and sometimes for episodic migraines (the start-stop kind).
But it’s not the cause of chronic migraine.
I sincerely wish it was.
If stress was the cause then the solution would be relatively straightforward – remove the cause of stress and the migraines would resolve themselves.
If only it was that simple.
A few people have assumed I must be stressed, have said or implied that I’d be better if only this or that changed… If only I had a smaller commute, or if I didn’t work at all; if I was more A, B or C; if only I was less X, Y or Z; if we were able to move house/ had a garden (or now that we have moved, the implication has been that I will now instantly improve, that the new house will ‘do me good’ – I do like the house but sadly I’m not sure it has magical healing powers).
I’ve discovered that chronic migraine is a complex neurological condition, sometimes referred to alongside conditions such as epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s. Sadly there’s no cure, and unfortunately it can’t be solved by ‘just chilling out a bit’.
Having said that, I wouldn’t be surprised if stress contributed to the migraines in the first place. They got worse while I was training to be an educational psychologist – a fascinating but intense professional doctorate that I started in 2009 and completed in late 2012/early 2013. I survived mainly on adrenaline, support from friends, family and colleagues and a good dose of sheer determination.
There were 10 of us on the course and I don’t think any of us could have anticipated what it would throw at us.
The first year is similar in structure and demands to a PGCE: a whirlwind of seminars, placements, assignments and a sizeable research project, plus the added complication of training your brain to think at doctoral level.
By the end of the first year, my brain felt saturated with everything I’d learnt and I was exhausted, but eager to put it all into practice.
In the second year, we hardly had space to breathe. On placement we were learning the job and doing the job at the same time. I made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately I learnt from them but some still make me wince. We were also having to reflect and evidence everything in a mammoth practice portfolio at the same time as devising a do-able thesis proposal.
In the third year we were doing the job pretty much full time while also working on our thesis research and write-up. Unfortunately, mine fell through 3 different times and in the end I was left with 4 months to do all the reading, data collection, analysis and write up. I wouldn’t recommend it but I somehow got it done. I’ve no idea how. I remember playing Eye of the Tiger very loudly at the start of each day and doing the Haka to the computer. I don’t know what the neighbours thought. I was past caring. This was my nemesis and I would not be defeated!
The migraines had been present before I started the course. But during the course, I noticed that I could usually push through them just long enough to get home, or to meet a deadline. So I kept pushing through them. I kept going. I still don’t know if that was a good idea or not. But it’s what I did.
When the course was over and the thesis was done, life settled down. The stress was gone. I’d started on the flunarizine and the migraines had subsided. I put them down to stress. I thought ‘now that the stress has gone, so have the migraines’.
So I couldn’t understand it when they returned.
I’m in a good place. I like my life. I’ve got a job I love, friends and family who mean the world to me, I’m enjoying myself and life is good.
Ironically, the most stressful thing in my life is the migraines.
When I spoke with the consultant at the National Migraine Centre, he said I had a genetic predisposition to chronic migraine and it would have developed at some point, no matter what I was or wasn’t doing. The doctorate may have contributed, but if it wasn’t that it would have been something else.
So it was a relief to hear that stress is not a factor in chronic migraine. It meant I could stop wondering about how to relieve stress that wasn’t there. But I can’t help but think if it was stress-related it would be a whole lot simpler and easier to sort out.
What is chronic migraine? See My Brain BSOD