“It’s too much. All these people racing down the sidewalk, the traffic, the noise… I feel like I can’t breathe, like I’m being crushed.” This was my assessment of the streets of Boston as my husband and I were returning to our apartment after seeing my new headache specialist.
You might assume I have an anxiety disorder. A therapist definitely thought so after I explained the “meltdowns” I had in stores. I described feeling totally overwhelmed by the lights, sounds, and smells, and being unable to think clearly or make decisions. I carried that diagnosis for five years before realizing these so-called panic attacks were actually the early stages of migraine attacks. Migraine sensory overload makes me as irritable as a hangry three-year-old.
This video, which depicts the sensory overload experienced by a person with autism, perfectly depicts how I feel when a migraine overloads my senses so much that sights, sounds, smells, and touch leave me incapable of coping. The world becomes so painful that I want to curl up in the fetal position and withdraw from all sensory input
(Caution: This video contains loud and bright images. If sensory input triggers migraine attacks for you, you may want to skip watching it.)
I once told a friend how much I identify with the sensory overload that people with autism describe. “The difference is that it never goes away for people with autism,” he said. He was offended, believing I was appropriating the experience of autism to explain my own. That was not my intent. I don’t know what it is like to live with autism and have no desire to rank my experience in comparison. I do know that this video resonates with me.
The drive through the streets of Boston that so overwhelmed me occurred during the Worst Year of My Life. My migraine attacks were vicious and unrelenting. Accordingly, my sensory sensitivity was constant and severe. Even now, when my migraine attacks are much more manageable, chronic migraine means my senses are always heightened. The sensory sensitivity is worse the more severe an attack is, but is always present. I breathe a sigh of relief to live in a less busy, less crowded city than Boston.
Can you tell when a migraine attack is coming?