Imagine there was something in your life that magnified everything. Not a literal magnifying glass, but something with the same effect: sending every thought, emotion, sensation out of proportion. For me, that pseudo-magnifying glass is depression and anxiety. I don’t talk about these much, at least not my depression. However, over the last few months, my mental health has reached a new level of interference where it has become something I can’t just write off to periodic flares during prolonged migraine attacks.
For me, depression had always been situational; it hit when I felt stuck in a situation I wasn’t happy to be in. However, as soon as I could find a way out, the depression lifted. The same had been true with the depression that plagued me during migraine flares. If I fell into a migraine flare, my depression tended to flare with it, but it generally lifted once I became more physically functional and the intractable migraine attack lessened. This was my pattern for a long time.
This spring brought new challenges, though. I hit a major milestone birthday and that brought… feelings. I have also been in a prolonged migraine flare. The icing on the crap cake is that I have some big, unwanted life changes coming up. This has all been enough to result in my depression symptoms packing their bags and staying a while. It isn’t pleasant – actually, that’s an understatement.
Migraine and depression are common co-morbid conditions. Research shows that people with chronic migraine have a 30-50% chance of experiencing depression. It’s easy to say something flippant like, “how can you not be sad if you’re living with that amount of chronic pain and other symptoms.” However, it’s likely more complex than that given the relationship between serotonin, depression, and migraine that I can’t begin to understand.
So over the last few months, as depression has been a constant roommate in my body, it has served to magnify everything: pain, fatigue, anxiety, apathy, and anger. It tells me not to get out of bed in the morning. It tells me not to do anything on my to-do list. It tells me I’m not smart and that people don’t like me. It tells me I’m not good enough. It also tells me I must be doing something wrong since everyone seems to be getting better, but I’m not. In short, depression exaggerates and lies.
It’s Friend, Anxiety
As if that weren’t enough, my anxiety has been unusually bad. Where depression got considerably worse with chronic migraine, I strongly suspect that anxiety has been with me since childhood. Worse, I blame anxiety for getting me into this migraine mess. Where depression tends to tag along after I’m in a migraine flare, anxiety can contribute to triggering my migraine flares.
Like depression, anxiety also likes to lie. Anxiety is a like a little earworm that gets inside my head and gnaws away at reason. It magnifies any little doubt or worry I might have. I know better, but anxiety finds ways to throw all logic out the window. I make up things to worry about. All the CBT training in the world doesn’t seem to matter. I still can’t stop myself from going to these places and thinking these thoughts.
The Dynamic Duo
In making me catastrophize, worry about the future, or worry about things that might or might not happen, anxiety has a way of making me not be in the moment. Likewise, depression has a tendency to make me wallow in loss or become distracted by unproductive thoughts and tasks. All these things take me away from the present. Why do I point this out? It’s two-fold. Being present helps ground me in the moment and what is actually happening. It allows me to sit with the experience, even if it is pain, sadness, and anxiety. Though I can’t always help it, by projecting fear of the future or reliving sadness of the past, I’m creating more suffering for myself. It is often best to just stay present and take things one moment at a time.
Secondly, I’ve begun to think that because anxiety, especially, takes me out of the moment, that it – combined with migraine brain fog – has taken a serious toll on my memory. I’m just not always present and as fully aware of a situation because I’m having anxious thoughts about a million other things. Current experiences aren’t registering fully. I believe this has affected my ability to retain experiences and even remember basic things. I find that incredibly frustrating.
The Physical Toll
It isn’t just the emotional and mental toll. Anxiety and depression have physically effects. Depression is exhausting. Combined with migraine, the fatigue is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It zaps me of all desire to do anything, literally.
On the flip side, anxiety constantly sends little zaps of adrenaline through my body. Minding my own business, I’ll get little jolts of a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach for no apparent reason. Often it comes with heart palpitations. And prolonged periods of intense anxiety have had the ability to trigger serious physical health issues like the worsening of my my IBS or chronification of my migraine attacks.
TW: Discussion of Suicide
I’ll close with saying that the toll this all takes is tremendous. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t had thoughts of suicide. I always tell my therapist I would never carry these thoughts out, but I often wonder how I’m going to live another 40 years in this much pain. In fact, people with migraine are at increased risk of suicide. When we have depression and migraine, we’re up against the double stigma associated with having two invisible illnesses people often discount as real or serious.
We have lost people in the migraine community to suicide. So to combat stigma and make it real, I’m talking about my experience with depression, anxiety, and migraine. I hope others will, too. *Note, I’m safe and getting help. I know it is hard to take those first steps, but I hope you’ll reach out if you need it.