Headaches and EMDR


One of the most distressing symptoms of CFS for me has been the headaches. While I’m continuing to recover, I still feel more anxious than I’d like, I feel like I have a mild cold all the time… and I get debilitating headaches.

Oddly enough, playing Pokemon GO every day hasn’t cured the headaches. Who’d have thought. I guess they never promised that in their terms & conditions that I clicked “agree” on without reading.

Back when I worked as a Computer Engineer and spent 8 solid hours every day staring at a screen and push push pushing myself towards the next vitally important deadline, I used to get severe migraine/tension headaches. I would either wake up with them and be wiped out for an entire day, or one would come on during the day and I’d just keep working until the pain got so bad that I had to go to bed, take Panadeine (paracetamol/acetaminophen and codeine) and lie there in agony until I could get to sleep. I knew once I got to sleep, the pain would be gone when I woke up; getting to sleep with my head in agony was the problem.

When the pain was really bad, I’d end up vomiting. I tried taking anti-migraine medication and going to a physiotherapist, but when I didn’t have a bad headache I felt absolutely fine; so I’d go back to push push pushing myself to breaking point again.

Eventually after I burned out at that career, I stopped sitting in front of a computer in a state of tension every day, and the headaches went away. I was incredibly relieved and finally kicked my codeine habit.

Then when I came down with CFS, the headaches came back.

After a recent particularly torturous sleepless night in agony, I decided I’d had enough and headed to my local doctor for some medication. I told him my sob story about CFS, and he organised yet another round of the usual blood tests. I talked about feeling anxious, depressed and the weird tension symptoms I feel in my face, head and neck, which he said sounded like neuralgia. He gave me a sample box of Prestique to try, which is an antidepressant that is supposed to help CFS sufferers recover some of our energy.

Having got this far through CFS without resorting to antidepressants (except for a very brief week or so where I started taking a low dose of something I’ve now forgotten, and then quit out of fear of the side-effects), it didn’t seem to make sense to start pumping chemicals into my brain now that I’m getting better.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming (EMDR)

I can’t help noticing that headaches and other common symptoms of CFS like anxiety, depression, fatigue, panic attacks and insomnia are very similar to the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One of the treatments touted for PTSD is called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprogramming (EMDR), which is thought to work via integrating the emotional impact of traumatic events between the different hemispheres of the brain by shifting your eyes back and forth while remembering a distressing scene. Although I’ve tried EMDR twice before without any noticeable benefit, I recently met a woman at a Trauma Informed Care workshop who said it had been life-changing for her, and since I keep hearing about the power of EMDR from different sources, I decided to give it a go before trying the Prestique.

I actually had tried EMDR once before coming down with CFS but I just couldn’t take it seriously. I kept laughing at the sight of my gorgeous female psychologist, who was treating me primarily for anxiety, waving her finger back and forth in front of my eyes. My second experience was with a male psychologist a year or two into my experience of CFS, and again I didn’t feel any benefit; but I was so distressed and anxious at the time that I kept jumping from therapy to therapy without really sticking at anything. Just review the history of this blog, and you’ll get the picture.

This time around, with the help of a government funded Access to Allied Psychological Services (ATAPS) plan paying for the treatment, I thought I’d take EMDR more seriously and actually stick at it.

My new EMDR therapist gave me some homework: to think of a scene from the past that I found distressing, and write about what I remember, including the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that I had. We would then use that as the basis for the treatment in the next session.

One of the first scenes that I tried working with was a memory of myself as a young boy playing in the playroom of my parent’s house, while my father muttered away to himself angrily in his bedroom and my mother came in, criticised him and the yelling began. I used to find their fights extremely frightening as a child, and could never understand why they kept having them when they were so scary for me. “Don’t they care about how this is affecting me?”, I would think. “Don’t I matter enough for them to get some help with their fighting?”

I was a highly sensitive boy, and experiences like this had a huge impact on me leaving me feeling unsafe around my parent’s relationship. I also found myself taking my mother’s criticism of my father personally, and became very self-conscious.

I have talked this particular scene over with many psychologists, counsellors and coaches in the past, and thought I’d dealt with it. Since I’ve been studying music informally, I decided to have a go at using my new song-writing skills to set the scene to music and explore what might be going on in my unconscious. Lo and behold, when I started to write the tears of trauma-healing began flowing. This seemed remarkable to me given the number of times I thought I’d processed the scene with previous therapists; and I hadn’t even started wiggling my eyes back and forth yet.

I turned up for the first EMDR session and read the lyrics of my song to my new psychologist, and again the tears of trauma started to flow. Having made it through the lyrics, we started the actual eye movement part of the therapy. After each brief burst of eye movement, the psychologist asked me where in my body I felt the feeling, and how strong it was, and any other scene had come up. All the scenes were about the fear of conflict and emotional abandonment, my core issues that I suspect underlie CFS for me.

I’ve had about 8 sessions now, and each time I’m exploring some experience that I haven’t got to the bottom of before with the many other therapies I’ve tried. I also get strong emotions coming up during the week that didn’t seem to surface before. Sometimes they’re in response to what’s going on, sometimes they’re more related to my general experience of life. Other times they’ll arise in a dream. At times I’ve had a blinding headache the day after an EMDR session; other times I feel fine.

All of this appears to be heading in the right direction of releasing trauma from deep in my unconscious mind, and the headaches seem to be gradually softening. After so much emotional healing over the past few years I sometimes find it astonishing how deep the impact of trauma goes.

The tension in my neck, head, face, jaw and teeth that I think is causing the headaches seems to float around. Sometimes I wonder if it’s connected to my experience of having braces in high school, which I found very physically painful for several years. The intensity and location of the sensations moves up and down like a roller-coaster. I recall Ashok Gupta’s comment in the Soften and Flow Meditation in The Gupta Program, that these sensations are trapped emotions.

If that’s the case, then a little EMDR should work some magic on it.


Author: Graham

I'm a guy in his late 40's, recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since May 2009. I now offer coaching and support to other people with CFS/ME.

3 thoughts on “Headaches and EMDR”

  1. I am doing a lot of mind-body therapy at the moment, following the teachings of Dr Sarno, author of The Divided Mind and inventor of the term Tension Myositis Syndrome. It’s fascinating stuff. Basically, the idea is that many chronic conditions are the result of holding in, or rather repressing, difficult emotions, especially rage/anger. The process is unconscious.

    You have to list all the things in your life, past and present, that make you angry or cause other negative emotions such as sadness, fear, etc. My list is very long –and I haven’t even finished!

    Have you come across it?

    1. Hi Judith,
      Yes I’m familiar with Tension Myositis Syndrome. I’ve blogged about it before and believe it’s part of what’s going on for me. I’ve been mindful during my first few Yoga sessions that it’s important to allow myself to feel the intensity of the physical and emotional sensations rather than to avoid them. I’ve done a lot of work with anger over the last few years and believe it’s a key part of the puzzle: I’ve been suspecting that deep down I’m a lot more angry than I appear on the surface, and lately I’ve been allowing myself to feel it instead of internalize it. As a result I’ve been much more assertive with people around me, especially members of my family. It will be interesting to see how this changes as I do more EMDR and Yoga, which seem like ideal ways to access the anger without exhausting myself. Let me know if you’d like to chat sometime about the things that make you angry; it could be therapeutic for us both!

  2. Interesting. I have suffered PTSD for years, and I have no doubt that it’s intertwined with the CFS. I had six months of gruelling EMDR last year and it has changed my life. But I guess I still have a long way to go. I hate this illness. I’ve spent too long online this morning so I had better get off otherwise I’ll get one of those rotten headaches. Cheerio!

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