Of Course Our Emotions Don't Cause Migraine

“Women’s Emotions Do Not Cause Their Migraines.” My first reaction to this New York Times headline was I’m so glad to see this stupid myth rebuked in a well-respected newspaper. Reading through reactions on social media showed that many people with migraine were as grateful for the article as I was. For once, this shared experience was not reassuring.

My gratitude was replaced with anger.

People with migraine are so used to being dismissed, to having our physical symptoms belittled and blamed on emotional instability, that we celebrate when a national news outlet tells the world that we’re not hysterical. We receive so little support—the severity of our symptoms is so rarely believed—that we gobble up every tiny breadcrumb we can find. Normally I appreciate any positive recognition for migraine. I figure every little bit helps advance public understanding of this disease. Today I’m having trouble finding an optimistic slant.

I took a second look at Twitter reactions to the article. This time I didn’t look at responses of the people I’m connected to, but at those who replied directly to the New York Times. And saw person after person laughing off the article. I’m quoting them rather than sharing screenshots because I don’t want to give recognition to people who laugh at our pain.

“No, they just cause ours, am I right fellas? BABOOM!”

“of course not...they cause MEN'S Migraines!”

“The men in and not in their lives do.”

“it's the men's emotions that cause our migraines.”

“No they are just born insane.”

I know people spew vitriol in the anonymity of the internet, that being snarky often reaps the rewards of likes and shares. Still, it’s hard to accept such comments as meaningless when you’ve seen the devastation migraine can bring. Every week I hear stories of migraine leading to destroyed marriages, estranged children, poverty, suicide.

Having migraine is not a choice. No one wants to live this life. Yet we’re constantly told we’re to blame. We’re told we need to stress less or exercise more or think positively or be less emotional. This is not news to you, nor is it news to sociologist Joanna Kempner, author of the book Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health.

When I asked Professor Kempner her thoughts on the article, she swiftly addressed the real issue that underlies migraine misconceptions: “The notion that migraine patients are somehow responsible for their pain has far-reaching implications. Policymakers consistently underfund migraine research and medical schools pay it little attention: few doctors are taught how to treat migraine properly and many are still taught that headache is a specialty suitable only for those at the bottom of the class.”

This is the crux of the issue. In individual instances, people’s attitudes don’t matter much. It’s immaterial if some random person is a jerk on Twitter. I don’t care if my neighbor understands that my lawn is overgrown because my migraine attacks have been unrelenting. The problem is these attitudes aren’t individual. The collective misunderstanding of migraine hurts us all.

“We live with a disease that affects every aspect of our lives and can cause massive disability, yet we’re surrounded by people who seem to think this is no big deal.” I wrote those words in a Migraine.com article last year. When it was shared on Facebook, several readers said that they don’t care what the general public thinks about migraine, only what their doctors think. But it’s all the same.

Doctors are part of society. So are politicians and policymakers. The New York Times announcing that women’s emotions aren’t to blame for migraine is a reflection of general attitudes about this illness. It’s why so many of us feel dismissed by doctors, why those who allocate research funding don’t think migraine is a worthwhile cause.

I am glad that the New York Times has attempted to debunk this migraine misconception. I’m also angry that such an article is necessary in 2016. Millions of people’s lives are upended by migraine every year. We need more than acknowledgement that we’re not hysterical. We need to have the severity of our pain and other symptoms believed. We need primary care providers who understand and know how to treat migraine appropriately. We need more headache specialists. We need research funding. We need to know what does cause migraine, not just what doesn't.

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