The thing about chronic illnesses is that they like to team up. This is no different for mental illnesses than it is for physical ones.
Of course, most of us with mental illness know that a lot of people have two or three. Anxiety disorders and depression tend to run together. A lot of people with eating disorders also struggle with anxiety disorders. Many people with mental illnesses also battle addiction.
But there are some links between mental and physical illness, too.
I have regular “migraine equivalents” or “silent migraines” — essentially, migraines with all the nasty visual and neurological symptoms, vertigo and nausea, but usually without the actual head pain. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, it’s really common for people with anxiety disorders to have headaches too, especially migraine-type headaches.
The connection may go beyond that.
“Migraine headaches can precede the onset of mental disorders, according to a 2009 study. Researchers found that 11 percent of participants in the study had migraines and a variety of disorders: major depression, general anxiety disorder (GAD), dysthymia, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, panic disorder, substance abuse disorders, agoraphobia, and simple phobia.” — Anxiety and Depression Association of America
I remember having silent migraine symptoms in high school, but now that I know what to look for, I know I’ve had OCD symptoms dating back to fourth or fifth grade. So I’m not sure which came first, the migraines or the OCD. But it makes a lot of sense that both got significantly worse during my senior year of high school and continued on that path until last year, when I finally got diagnoses and real treatment for both.
Another commonality: Both migraines and mental illness tend to run in families, indicating some sort of genetic connection. And, of course, they’re health issues that are “all in the head.”
I’m not sure what possessed me to hit up Google with the search “OCD and migraine,” but the search gave me some other answers. Right there in the AADA website’s menu is “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.”
“People with IBS frequently suffer from anxiety and depression, which can worsen symptoms. … IBS can also make you feel more anxious and depressed.” — Anxiety and Depression Association of America
It’s like a disgusting ouroboros. Stress feeds into IBS which feeds into depression and anxiety which feeds into stress which feeds right back into IBS. Awesome.
It’s interesting trivia, but what does it mean for us?
I’m finding that knowing that these disorders are connected can help to get them all under control. For example, when I first began treatment for OCD last summer, I was having daily silent migraines. Now, I have two or three a month, total. Some of that was seeing a neurologist and getting on the proper dosage of migraine medication, but I’m convinced therapy and psychiatric medication helped, too. As I’ve weaned off of sertraline to start fluvoxamine instead, my OCD symptoms have increased, and I’ve had more migraines, too (I track them). I’ve also seen my IBS symptoms wax and wane depending on how under control my OCD and anxiety symptoms are.
I’m not promising that kind of success for everyone. We’re all different, and what helps some of us won’t help all of us, unfortunately. I’m definitely not qualified to be giving any kind of medical advice. But if you have migraines, gastrointestinal issues, chronic pain or other physical symptoms on top of OCD or another mental illness, it might be worth discussing it with your therapist or psychiatrist. There may be a connection there, and relieving symptoms of one issue may help the others, too.
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