Headaches: Overdoing It, Anger/Anxiety and Adrenaline Withdrawl

One of my most distressing symptoms of CFS for me is the tension headache that never really goes away. Another friend recovering from CFS recently mentioned her similar headache, and since I’ve got one right now and I’m in a bad mood, I feel like complaining a bit about it.

Back when I was a computer engineer, I used to get regular migraine-intensity headaches about once a month or so. I would spend hours every day engrossed in a computer screen and often felt a headache coming on in the afternoon. I was so obsessed with my work that I would just push through until the pain was so debilitating that I would need strong painkillers with codeine just to get through the day. Once I got to sleep I would be OK the next day, but if the pain was too intense to get to sleep, it would often escalate until the pain was so excruciating that I would be nauseous and vomit. Vomiting with a migraine was a horrible experience but would usually give me some relief, and then eventually I’d fall asleep.

The next day, I’d feel really groggy but the pain would mostly be gone and I’d be back to work. The day after that it felt like nothing had happened and I’d be back to go go go mode. Then a few weeks later I’d do it all again.

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Reality Check For Compulsive Care-givers & People-pleasers

I recently came across a fascinating talk on YouTube by Dr Gabor Mate, a physician with a background in palliative care who wrote the book When The Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. His talk covers the link between compulsive care-giving/people-pleasing behavior, and physical illness.

I really relate to what he says. I used to have a successful Engineering career from which I burned out several years before I came down with CFS. I too was a compulsive care-giver and people-pleaser.

While working as an engineer I was heavily involved at my local church and did volunteer work on a 24 hour telephone crisis line. I enjoyed the feeling of helping people in crisis, but I can see now looking back that I was in a constant state of stress. I often did late night shifts at the crisis centre with a migraine, doped up on codeine-based pain-killers and desperate for the shift to end so I could go home to bed before yet another suicidal caller rang. Meanwhile my relationship with my girlfriend of the time was slowly falling apart, I was losing interest in the career I used to love, and my faith in the religion I was brought up with was going down the toilet.

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Using Assertiveness To Release Anger & Stress

I’ve noticed a consistent pattern among myself and my clients recovering from CFS: We all have a history of taking on too much stress and not really standing up for ourselves when other people do things we don’t like. Most of us had parents who weren’t willing or able to teach us how to deal with our emotions, to self-soothe our nervous system when we were in distress, or to stand up for ourselves when our emotional or physical boundaries were being violated. Often the person we most needed to stand up to was one or both of our parents themselves, and that rarely goes well when you’re a distressed child trying to stand up to an adult who is being unreasonable because their wounded inner child is running the show.

All of this is a recipe for ever increasing anger, resentment and frustration. We end up overcompensating in a desperate attempt to get our needs met because nobody taught us how to do this effectively. Internalise that toxic cocktail and it’s no wonder we end up sick.

Behaviour patterns learned as a child tend to stick even if they never really worked well, and coping strategies learned as a child rarely works well in the adult world. If nobody shows us a better way, it’s easy to continue behaving in ways that increase our internal store of resentment and frustration long into adulthood with no way of releasing the stress pressure cooker.

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Dealing with Angry People

I get my fair share of hate mail on this blog, which I find unpleasant but not entirely surprisingly. Given that CFS appears to involve the emotional centre of the brain, it tends to generate a lot of anxiety and/or anger. Many people aren’t good at expressing their anger cleanly, and some of them choose to channel it into hate mail directed at me.

Say "No!" to Other People's Anger
Say “No!” to Other People’s Anger

Being on the receiving end of somebody else’s hostility can be stressful, so it’s important to be assertive with these people to stop their stress from entering my emotional boundary.

He’s an example from last week: I got an email from a female ex-friend who I initially met through this blog, which began:

“I don’t read your shit, but…”

… and went on to give me some unsolicited advice that I didn’t find particularly helpful.

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Vagus Nerve Infection?

A relatively new friend who I told that I’m now coaching people with CFS just pointed me to this interview with Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van Elzakker, who hypothesises that CFS might be caused by an infection of the vagus nerve.

Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. "Gray793" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray's Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png
Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. “Gray793” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png

Listening to the interview, it sounds like a pretty compelling theory. On the same day, another friend of mine who has suffered depression and fatigue for a long time messaged me to say that supplements he was taking to boost his acetylcholine, which happens to be the principal vagal neurotransmitter, are working wonders for him.

This article suggests that acetylcholine can also be boosted by being kind and compassionate to others, which could explain why I feel better physically when I’m putting my attention on helping other people. It also mentions chanting; I joined a chanting/kirtan group a few months ago, and find that singing just plain feels good. Perhaps the reason it feels good is because it stimulates the vagus nerve.

If doing this reduces the stimulation/inflamation/whatever-mechanism-makes-us-feel-bad then the symptoms lessen because the brain no longer believes that the body is under attack. I’ve noticed for a while that we get symptoms when we’re under stress, like people with HSV-1 get cold sores when under stress. Most of our stress is interpersonal (I heard someone once say “all stress is social”), which could explain why the assertiveness keys of Mickel Therapy seem to work.

I also really liked Dr Van Elzakker’s compassionate attitude to people with CFS. Researchers seem to come in for a lot of criticism online, and it’s awesome to hear him saying things like: “If your doctor believes that your condition is psychological, fire them.” He also had some good practical advice for dealing with symptoms while waiting for the magic cure. I found just listening to the interview gave me a greater sense of inner peace about the whole thing.

A Breakthrough in the Healthy Expression of Anger

Up until recently, are used to suppress/repress/internalise my anger. In fact, I now believe this is one of the main reasons why I came down with CFS. But now, after a lot of anger expression workshops, therapy, and non-violent communication practice, things are starting to change for me.

Do You Express Your Anger Constructively?
Do You Express Your Anger Constructively?

On the weekend, I attended yet another anger expression workshop called “Feel and Heal Anger”. The idea behind the workshop was that when were out of touch with our anger, we often internalise it self-destructively or project it outwards onto other people as violence or other forms of abuse, both of which are unhealthy.

The aim of the workshop was to get in touch with our anger and express it in ways that didn’t hurt anybody else, or ourselves. There were boundary setting exercises, group sharing, and dynamic burn meditations to help us process the anger and the grief that lies underneath it.

At this particular workshop, I felt more sadness and grief that anger and rage. But I figure if I’m feeling emotions, then the process must be working. I had a fairly sleepless night after the workshop as my body was still processing feelings that came up for me.

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How I REALLY Feel about My Mother

I woke up this morning feeling quite content. I had a fun day yesterday: I spent the afternoon in an Improv games workshop, playing improvised theatre games with a bunch of my old Improv friends. When I first got into Improv a few years ago, I was still quite ill. I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety, and I found the two hour classes each week a welcome relief because the games we played was so hilarious.

I was hoping that the fun would just naturally translate on to stage when I was performing Improv in front of other people; but in hindsight this was the best thing for me at the time. Although it was often hilarious for the audience, it was just far too far outside of my comfort zone. After doing Improv, I would often feel like I’d been smashed over the head with a frying pan. One of the golden rules of Improv is that “you can’t get it wrong”; but just try telling that to my limbic system with my deeply ingrained fear of failure, fear of looking foolish, and fear of what other people think of me. Lurking there in my subconscious, like little landmines ready to go off at any moment.

After a while, I began to resent Improv and the nervous breakdown that it gave me. My inner child had it the whole freak-out thing. I had to really push myself just to step into a scene, and it simply wasn’t fun any more. I was tired of pushing myself.

Now, a couple of years down the track now, I heard about yesterday’s drop-in improv games workshop and decided to give it a go. I was happy to find some of my old friends there, and it was great getting up and doing it just for fun. In some of the games there were opportunities to get angry; I found that it comes really naturally to me now.

I came home having had a fun afternoon, and caught a ride with one of the girls from the workshop; we had a great conversation on the way home about the teachings of Eckardt Tolle, consciousness, presence and all the cool things that I’m into nowadays. It was a Saturday night, but I still came home early; I’m kind of used to that now.

So back to this morning: I woke up feeling content, and had a bit of a lie in. I’ve been practising sending loving thoughts and breathing into emotions and physical sensations that I have, whether pleasant or unpleasant. I was really struck by one of the remarks in the TMS Recovery Program which said that the basis of self-love was loving and accepting your emotions. ALL of your emotions; even the ones that don’t feel so good.

That was going fine, until thoughts of my mother entered my mind. In case you haven’t been paying attention, I’ve had very little contact with my mother since a big argument we had 12 months ago, after which I realised that I just don’t feel emotionally safe around her (duh!). Feeling safe is really important to me, so I attempted to negotiate some new boundaries in our relationship that would leave me feeling safe. Since this process has stalled, we have more or less cut contact.

Cutting contact with my mother is painful, but I noticed my body reacting with migraines whenever I spent time with her. I’m still really triggered by the way that she treats my father, and I just don’t like being around it. I’m also treated by the way she responds when ever I feel upset, especially about something that she’s said or done. This makes family get-togethers difficult if I attend, or painful if I don’t; my old abandonment stuff just gets triggered again.

So during last week I rang the minister of the church where I grew up, which my parents still attend, in the hope that I could get some advice from him. Maybe he might even be able to broker some kind of peace deal between us, which could lead to us both sitting down and talking about the kind of relationship we would like to have. I want a relationship that meets both our needs, where we both get to feel safe.

And maybe pigs might fly backwards in space one day.

The minister was very understanding about where I was coming from, and I really felt heard. He was completely accepting of the idea that my migraines are linked to my feelings about my parents, and that I need to listen to what my body is telling me. He also had a perspective that I didn’t think my parents would ever really take seriously: that support from their adult children becomes more and more important as they age. Unless my mother is willing to do something about our broken relationship, it’s unlikely that I will want to do anything to support her during her twilight years.

I don’t think she can even see, or just plain isn’t willing to acknowledge, that the relationship is even broken. I can barely stand being around her when I know that she reserves the right to say things that trigger me so easily, and is unwilling to even talk about how we could make a relationship work for me.

So the minister could clearly see that it’s really in both my parents’ best interests for my mother to do something constructive about the situation between us. And for my father to step up and encourage her, rather just don’t just sit back and act passive like he has in the past.

Every now and then, I feel the urge to do something constructive myself to create a relationship that feels healthy my mother and I. The truth is I still feel really angry with her, and part of me probably doesn’t want it resolved. Why should she get the benefit of me looking after her physically in her twilight years, when she’s never looked after me emotionally during my entire life?

At the same time, I feel guilty about the resentment that I feel towards her; after all, she was there physically for me when I was growing up and she did cook, clean, clothe and send me off to school for years. But I never really felt safe around her emotionally, and feel tremendously resentful for the way she reacts to me when I’m upset. This has caused me a tremendous amount of anxiety, and had a devastating effect on my sense of self and my self-confidence. It’s the textbook childhood recipe for an adult attachment disorder.

So really, deep down I’m still just really fucking angry with her, and my father. These people whose apparent indifference to my emotions has caused me so much pain and trauma over so many years. No wonder I’m not interested in looking after them.

As the thoughts about my mother and father flowed through my mind in bed this morning, I felt this heavy sense of exhaustion sweep over me. It’s not just a psychological thing, it’s a physical thing. This rage that is buried deep inside me.

At the same time, I’m fucking sick of the whole deal, and just want to get on with my life.

During my phone conversation with the minister, he made a passing remark: “You know, you could just walk away”. I’m pretty sure that his point was that my parents should be grateful that I’m still making an effort to connect with them. But this morning, it sounds like really good advice: just walk away.

I guess a part of me is still hooked on wanting my parents emotional support. Or even just a connection with them that doesn’t cause me further pain, or simply drive me crazy with frustration.

Even though it’s never like me to come.

My experiences with people generally have taught me that the more needily invested I am in getting something from somebody else, the less likely they are to want to give it. If I really was to just walk away, not only might I save myself a whole heap of ongoing pain: It also opens up the possibility that down the track my parents might work out that not having me in their life is actually more painful than sorting out what causes me to stay away.

After visiting my mother in hospital last week, where we pretty much pretended that there was no problem between us, I’m afraid of just reverting back to our old adult/child relationship; which simply doesn’t work for me. So it’s either create a new adult/adult relationship, or walk away.

I took some solace this morning from Craig David’s song Walking Away:

Maybe Mickel Therapy Isn’t Complete Bullshit After All

I had a go at Mickel Therapy a couple of years ago, but gave up because:

  • I had difficulty identifying the onset of any particular symptom, which is key to the process. My symptoms remained pretty much constant, aside from an intense tiredness hitting in the afternoon. None of the actions I took every had an immediate impact on the symptom I was experiencing at the time, which left me feeling pretty hopeless about the process.
  • The primary emotion I was experiencing was anger, and Mickel Therapy didn’t appear to have a tool for dealing with anger unless it arose in response to something. I felt angry pretty much all the time.
  • The one thing I could identify that triggered anger was my therapist using a facile analogy of sitting on a pin to describe why it was important to identify the trigger and deal with it. Of course if you’re sitting on a pin, you don’t just sit and meditate on the pain you’re in… you pull out the fucking pin. But when you’re sitting on a pin you know exactly where the problem lies so it’s easy to identify the solution. CFS wasn’t like that for me. My therapist trotted out this ridiculous analogy every time we talked, so my strategy for dealing with that emotion was to quit talking to him.

So I gave up. However, I did continue to implement the 3 assertiveness keys, and to look for ways to process emotions that came my way. In particular I remembered Fleur telling me that she realized by doing MT that she was basically bored. So I started riding my bicycle in the afternoons instead of going to bed, then going to an acting class right around the time I usually felt most tired. Or hanging out with a friend in the afternoon. Or going to the beach to go body boarding. Interestingly, when I did these things I didn’t feel so tired; or at least I didn’t notice it, and didn’t spend time obsessing over it. I’ve also continued to do things I love, like playing music, and to plan more of them every day.

I’ve also been applying some of the principles I learned in the Gupta Program, like meditating every day and going for a walk in nature. I live near bushland, and spend at least an hour each day bushwalking, or just sitting and meditating. Over time, I’ve found my mind is much calmer now and I’m not so anxious. I also exercise first thing in the morning, something my naturopath put me onto in an effort to reduce my night-time cortisol levels so I could get some restorative sleep. My Mickel Therapist had suggested that I not do any other therapy at the same time, and I sort of ignored his advice as I was taking what seemed like the best advice from all over the place. Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea.

The other day I went cycling in the morning with another friend of mine who has recently done The Lightning Process, and found it significantly increased his energy levels. Along the way we stopped at a beach where I had a swim. I’m not a great swimmer as I’ve never been comfortable putting my face under water; even snorkeling causes me to panic over whether I’ll be able to breathe. So I tried swimming “properly” with my face under the water for a few strokes; something that used to cause me great anxiety as a kid. After a minute or so of doing this in shallow water, I stood up and felt so disoriented, I couldn’t walk straight. I felt nauseous for about the next hours, as if I’d been spun around until I felt sick. I thought I was going to throw up.

Now I can’t explain this purely in terms of fight/flight/freeze response. Nor have I ever been fully comfortable with Gupta’s explanation of the amygdala triggering flu-like symptoms. I just don’t get how that could happen; it doesn’t have that level of control. But the hypothalamus does; it’s in control of just about everything. When I stuck my head under the water, my best guess is that an oversensitive amygdala triggered an oversensitive hypothalamus leading my body to go all out of wack.

So perhaps Gupta and Mickel are both right, and the amygdala and the hypothalamus are both overstimulated; but while lots of the therapy I’ve been doing has been amygdala focused (like dealing with past trauma), it probably came at the expense of retriggering the hypothalamus. It seems to me that since the physical symptoms are the most distressing, the most important thing is to calm down the hypothalamus; and let the amygdala calm down by itself. Or perhaps Mickel Therapy calms them both down by removing the emotional stimulus.

I’m off into speculation land now, but the main learning for me is to stop doing things that scare me, in my attempts to deal with anxiety by expanding my comfort zone. The one exception to this is stuff that contributes directly to my future career, since financial stress is one thing that contributes to anxiety. I also feel even more committed to finding things that I love to do, and doing more of them, so that my amygdala is only ever sending feel-good signals to the hypothalamus.

If everyone else in the world could just join me in this plan, perhaps we can have world peace without me having to win a beauty contest.