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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 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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • HelenC
    3 years ago

    Strong emotion in me will absolute bring on a migraine and I know it well enough that when I am preparing for a ceremony like a graduation or one of the kids coming back from a combat zone or when a new baby is being shown I get my whole tool box out before to make sure I am as ready as a can be. I steel myself to avoid tears if it at all possible because that seems to be the trigger. In day-to-day life I never watch tear-jerker movies and I always avoid anything that will cause extreme sadness like that.

  • Mimi
    4 years ago

    The last paragraph sums up my feelings, especially the second sentence. Man, if my emotions were to blame, I would be doing everything I could to keep them under control in order to prevent a migraine! The last time I had one that was so bad I had to go to the ER, I was grateful to have a care team that listened and validated my pain; they didn’t just blow it off. It’s awful that not everyone receives the same treatment.

  • menopausalmigraineur
    4 years ago

    I so understand!Kerrie, as usual, you nailed why we all should be irritated as all get out. Migraines are a serious DISEASE that effect the central nervous system, NOT something that is controllable by popping a Valium or drinking some chamomile tea. They are no more under our control then epilepsy or Alzheimer’s which both also have an inherited or genetic predisposition. No one has yet to determine the Epigenetic trigger or switch for who will get migraines and who won’t. My maternal grandfather had them. Then NO ONE in the family until me, at 9. He was 72 and a Veteran. Then a few years later my sister, then years after that my mother. My brother never got them. My two kids got them starting as toddlers. My husband had his first painless one at 38. But still people ignore the reality that a great deal of variety is still lumped under the word migraine as a collection of symptoms they still are trying to figure out how to treat.

  • Isabelle Machado
    4 years ago


  • Luna
    4 years ago

    Emotions do not cause migraines but migraines cause emotions.

  • Luna
    4 years ago

    There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.
    And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear
    You shout and no one seems to hear.
    –Pink Floyd

  • Diane
    4 years ago

    I’m still fighting the medical establishment with my primary care doctor. I just received a letter from their office saying I need to make an appointment with their nurse and social worker due to my “chronic condition” to make goals and see how we can work toward those goals. In other words – how they can get me off the only medication that has helped, not fixed, but helped. Problem is, it has codeine. Fiorinal with with codeine. Of course I haven’t changed my prescription in probably close to 10 years, but the trend now is to get everyone off of opiates. And I must be a drug addict if I keep asking for it. They don’t get it. Not that I haven’t tried everything else, like everyone else has. I’m also on Botox and ice and a dark room is my best friend. So I’ll be on the phone Monday, and I’ll probably end up being defensive and start crying. Again.

  • LAnnSmith
    4 years ago

    Can you bring someone to the ‘goal’ appointment to help you? Somebody who is well versed in our pain needs and can speak to your specific situation, that you do not have a goal of stopping the Fiorinal? Perhaps switching to a pain management practice for those meds is the goal instead.

  • cindyd
    4 years ago

    It makes me sad that so many don’t understand this disease. Yesterday a storm was coming where I live and with the drop in barometric pressure, I literally felt my brain “lock up” at work. I had a tremendous amount of pressure in my head with pain and was trying to finish my work day. My boss is very understanding and told me to go home but I forced myself to stay at work under the florescent lights. Now it’s Saturday morning, raining and I slept with my ice pack last night. I am still in bed after having to get up and take more medication and have watering of my right eye running down my cheek from the headache. Emotions? Nope.

  • Bonnie Troop
    2 years ago

    Hi Cindyd, I too am like a little barometer and know when the weather is changing by getting first the gold sparkly aura that obscures the left side of my vision, and later the migraine pain follows. Also when I worked at my last job I found out that the fluorescent lights triggered those migraines, once a week, where I would lose my vision. One of the companies I worked for was okay if we wanted to turn the row of lights above us off, which helped. I also have my entire family trained to turn fluorescent lights off off in the kitchen immediately when they are done. I also can’t take hearing the dryer, so everybody also closes that door.

  • marestails
    4 years ago

    I can relate – I live at almost 7000ft and any change in barometric pressure sets me off.

    It’s good you have a sympathetic supervisor.

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