Love & Sex Magazine

Migraines — Personality Inhibition and Sexual Repression

By Nathan Feiles, Lmsw @therapynathan

a_study_in_flowing_water_xiii_by_christhejeweler-d4la86aIn my previous post, “Migraine Therapy — More Effective Than Medication?“, I discussed the underlying emotional environment that can trigger migraines, or keep people who struggle with chronic migraines consistently close to the migraine threshold.

There are many possible triggers for migraines, and, for people who struggle with non-organic chronic migraines, emotional history may have significant relevance to this picture.

In my practice, I work with people who struggle with chronic migraines, utilizing a specialized form of psychotherapy that I refer to as “Migraine Therapy” (link to my previous post above for more on this). While each person who comes in is an individual with her or his own history, there are certain themes that tend to accompany the migraine struggle.

Inhibition and Repression

Generally, and somewhat simplistically, speaking, the more emotionally genuine and connected a person can be, the less likely it is that they would experience non-organic  chronic pain (pain with no identified medical basis). Somatic symptoms, such as migraines, IBS, and others, can often be experienced when certain areas of emotion are repeatedly constricted and repressed.

As an analogy, think of a sink that has, say, 12 faucets — each one representing a different emotion and/or state of being. For purposes of illustration, let’s assume that at the beginning of life, all the faucets are running — we haven’t developed a sense of “right” and “wrong”, and haven’t experienced judgements or criticisms from the world around us. The emotions and states of being are flowing freely without conflict.

As we develop and grow, we start experiencing consequences of certain states of being that become threatening, or in some way risky, either direct (such as a parent who hits), or indirect (such as a threat to the ego and self-esteem, e.g., being rejected). When we experience enough negativity from certain emotions or states of being, we begin to turn off those faucets that cause repeated pain.  (We fear re-experiencing the emotional pain, so we shut down those areas that are painful. Then when we see that shutting down those areas avoids pain, it reinforces keeping those areas of ourselves cut off).

However, what’s crucial in all of this is that the “water” keeps backing up in the pipes behind the closed faucets. We begin to repress states of ourselves, and become inhibited in certain ways. As this happens, other open faucets become more pronounced, forcing out more “water” in order to compensate for the faucets that are turned down or off altogether. As the “water” collects behind the compromised or closed faucets, the pipes begin to struggle to contain the pressure. At a certain point, the migraine is triggered (whether from pressure build-up on its own, or from a combination of the emotional back-up and a secondary trigger).

Where Do You Experience Repression or Inhibition?

There are many possible patterns of inhibition that people can experience. For example, people who have a tendency to make themselves “smaller” in relationships, such as those who may be used to having to accommodate larger, sometimes scary or overbearing personalities when growing up.

Another issue is sexual repression. Often (though, not always) seen with this is an inability to climax. Hand-in-hand with this issue is a tendency to have trouble with “letting go.” Thought-processes are often overwhelming and at times obsessive (and there is always something new to obsess over). Vulnerability also is difficult to experience without feeling like it would be risking losing total emotional control.

Sexual repression doesn’t necessarily mean there was a sexual trauma in a person’s history — it could be an underdeveloped part of oneself, based on upbringing. For example: a woman in her 30’s who was treated as a child throughout her upbringing, even through her adolescent years, because her parents couldn’t make the emotional adjustment to their baby girl becoming an adult. As a result, she has subconsciously cut off the sexual side of herself in response to the parents’ need to keep her a child.

Another common issue is repressed anger. When people have difficulty connecting with appropriate anger and/or other “negative” emotions, it’s often because it was threatening to express those feelings, growing up (whether an actual threat — like being hit, or a threat to the ego — like being berated and overpowered), that it became self-protective to cut off the emotion. This leads to more passive-aggression (such as sarcasm), and the anger itself becomes repressed.

One important note — repression and inhibition may seem like qualities of an introverted personality, but repression and inhibition is not only for introverted types. Some people who are quite extroverted experience migraines as well. People who operate at high energy levels aren’t necessarily living with 12 running faucets. They’re just operating with different faucets running (and not running) than those of introverts. There’s the same chance of repression in both types, even if it plays out differently in each.

These points are just a small sample of how repression can find its way into the migraine picture. Any emotion can be repressed for any number of reasons. It is based on our own personal histories, and is very individual. It isn’t always anger or sex. It can be repression of happiness, sadness, grief, and others.

Turning the “Water” Back On

In the end, it becomes necessary to learn to re-experience and integrate the parts of ourselves that were previously shut down — but to do so in a safe environment. The more the faucets can run in sync, the less pressure there will be, and the energy can flow.


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