- Those with migraine are two to five times more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, no matter their age or gender.
- Many symptoms of migraine mirror symptoms of depression, including the stigma attached.
- Through reading literature by those who suffer similarly, one may find compassion and hope.
I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root:/It is what you fear. – Sylvia Plath, Elm
They use their experiences with their illnesses in much of their creative work. If we think about the symptoms of migraine and those of depression, we can detect significant similarities. Naturally, if one suffers from both illnesses, these symptoms are even more problematic.
It has been found that those with migraine are two to five times more likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, no matter their age or gender. People experiencing migraines have a three times higher risk of developing depression than those who do not. Conversely, people diagnosed with depressive disorders are at three times higher risk of developing migraines than those without depression (Weitzel, 2019).
Many symptoms of depression echo those of anxiety and migraine: sleep and concentration difficulties, changes in appetite, and low energy. People suffering from depression also experience sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, and loss of interest or pleasure in things enjoyed previously.
Common symptoms of anxiety and depression, like excessive worry, fear, and irritability, can play off of migraine symptoms. Patients are fearful of when the next attack will come; they feel helpless about the unpredictability of their symptoms and feel frustrated over the many ways that migraine is affecting their life.
During a migraine attack, anxiety often centers on worries directly related to the attack, such as wondering how long it will last, when or if the medication will start to work, or if the sufferer will be able to get work done. Anxiety about the future is also present, such as worrying about the ability to maintain a job. Even when a migraine is not present, the patient may experience anxiety about when one may occur and whether it will disrupt plans (Smitherman, 2019).
Not knowing when the next attack is coming can cause a great deal of migraine anxiety and, ultimately, depression. Symptoms of depression include fatigue, loss of interest or pleasure in things previously enjoyed, changes in sleep, changes in eating habits, and feelings of sadness and hopelessness, which also closely mirror common migraine symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite, and malaise.
Having migraines and depression together can lead to unique challenges. People who have both conditions might experience certain difficulties with their treatment. For example:
- Getting the correct diagnosis might be more difficult.
- You may find it more challenging to take your medication as prescribed.
- You might be more likely to take too much medication to manage difficult symptoms.
- Migraines are more likely to become chronic when you have both conditions.
- People who experience migraines may be more likely to attempt suicide.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. In Plath’s poem referenced at the beginning of this article, the image of the taproot journeying deep into the earth may symbolize the individual journeying deep into their psyche. The elm and the speaker in the poem know what it is like to hit a type of mental and emotional rock bottom, to plumb the depths of depression and despair. The elm knowledgeably declares that it is this extreme state that the woman fears.
Despite Plath’s insight into her internal struggles, she did not wish to seek help due to the stigma and cost associated with getting help. Instead, she decided that the only option is to pretend, that “masks are the order of the day – and the least I can do is cultivate the illusion that I am gay, serene, not hollow and afraid” (Plath, 2000, p. 151). Does this idea of putting on the mask during each day of migraine and depression sound familiar?
Plath’s journals exhibited the following symptoms: persistent depressed mood, diminished interest, and pleasure, diminished ability to concentrate, insomnia, feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and suicidal ideation. Her condition also caused impairment in social and occupational functioning.
Virginia Woolf’s first symptoms included headache, insomnia, and racing thoughts, which tended to last from seven to ten days if immediately recognized and treated, according to Leonard Woolf (1964). In Woolf’s diary, spanning 1931-to 1935, she documented frequent headaches, at one point stating, “I can’t write a word; too much headache” (1982, p. 361).
Woolf experienced depressive episodes that she perceived as consequences due to her personal faults rather than simply being ill. Leonard described her self-blaming as an irrational sense of guilt. Furthermore, Plath and Woolf often reiterate the social stigma surrounding mental illness.
The stigma of mental illness and migraine was heavily ingrained in the societies that Plath and Woolf lived in and still exists today. Woolf's suicide note left for her husband demonstrates the desperation and fear of living with these illnesses:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time…
Virginia Woolf, Suicide Note
Today we have more education and treatment for psychological disorders and migraine, but many still view these illnesses as weakness, which can be persevered through simply by one’s willpower. Even though psychological services and medical treatments are more readily available, people still refrain from seeking them out because of the stigma.
That’s where we all can step in and help one another and so many others. Each of us has to play a role in educating others and encouraging them to seek out medical and psychological assistance.
Plath and Woolf are two wonderful examples of artists using their illnesses to create exquisite art, and it is often through literature that we can encourage empathy and compassion. While their work and suffering may seem depressing, it does confront realities that so many suffered before more research and treatments became available.
Go ahead and find that poem, that story, that novel that speaks to you through authors who have experienced what we experience–the horrors of depression, anxiety, and migraine. Through them, you may find compassion, understanding, and, in many cases, hope.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
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"Migraines and Mental Health: The Road Between Migraines and Anxiety & Depression Travels Both Ways."Posted on February 7, 2019. https://www.rtor.org/2019/02/07/migraines-and-mental-health/.
Paul, Catherine. “Hysteria 2: Deserters from the Army of the Upright.” The International Virginia Woolf Society. May 2021. https://v-woolf-society.com/2021/05/07/catherine-paul-hysteria-2-desert….
Smitherman, T. & Baskin, S. “Depression and Anxiety in Migraine Patients.” American Migraine Foundation. Retrieved January 18, 2019, from https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/depression-and-….
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. Print.
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