A bride faints while reciting her wedding vows.
A comedian vomits in the bathroom minutes before taking the stage in front of 10,000 fans.
A hard-driving car salesman is stricken with a heart attack at the age of 51.
What was the cause behind all of these events?
A Convincing Illusion
From the moment we awake in the morning to the moment we descend into sleep at night, we’re bombarded with a chatter inside our head that permeates our waking life. It’s the voice inside, the internal narrator that, if you pay attention, never really stops talking.
Yet, it’s hard for us to believe that the thoughts in our head can affect the workings of the body. Our health is a matter of flesh and sinew, not an intangible abstraction like our mental life. Thoughts exist in some other dimension, right?
While our experience of thought leads us to believe it is made of immaterial stuff, our thoughts are the direct product of our biology – specifically, the firing of neurons inside our brains. Fundamentally, they’re no different than the neural firings that control our leg muscles or the muscle cell contractions that pump blood out of the heart. Were this not true, it would be impossible for thoughts to make us faint, vomit, or succumb to heart disease. They are just as capable of influencing our physiology as a nail through our foot, a drug we ingest, or a virus in our respiratory epithelium. In fact, it’s hard to overstate their influence over our health.
Take a look at this illustration:
Above is a depiction of the autonomic nervous system. The specifics are not important. What it is important to appreciate here is that the brain, through the connections you see, is capable of influencing virtually every single organ system in the body. And if thoughts are the direct product of brain activity, then thoughts alone are capable of influencing virtually every single organ system in the body. Which is exactly how and why thoughts can drop our blood pressure so low that we faint, or cause a contraction of our stomach violent enough to expel its contents.
In medical school, we were told that over half of our patient visits would be related in some way to psychological factors: matters of health ultimately rooted in the psyche, aka our patient’s thoughts. At the time, I’m pretty sure we all thought that was preposterous – a bit of rhetorical hyperbole. With well over a decade of direct patient experience under my belt, I think it’s likely an underestimate.
Yet, very few of us, even most in the medical field, give the power of thought its due. Billions of dollars in fancy diagnostic testing and specialist consultations are wasted every year searching in vain for pathology in the body in cases where the pathology lies in the mind.
In large part, this stems from all the cultural baggage we associate with problems of the psyche. “It’s in our heads” equates with “it’s not real.” If you’ve read this far, you recognize that for the lie that is. It’s only “not real” if you fail to acknowledge the biological reality of our psyche. The fainting bride, the vomiting comedian, the hard-driving salesman: clearly what’s “in our head” is just as real as a nail through our foot, a virus in our respiratory epithelium, or a prescription medication. The division between mind and body is only a convincing illusion.
With this understanding of the thought-health connection comes incredible opportunity for improving our health. If thoughts have such far-reaching influence over our physiology, then we can learn to shape that influence towards promoting health, not disease. Moreover, if it’s always there, in the background, every waking hour, doesn’t it stand to reason that figuring out how to do this might be as important as just about anything else we could do for our health?
The Migraineur’s Achilles Heel
What’s the relevance here for the migraine sufferer?
Consider this: the number one trigger cited by migraineurs is…stress.
Not only is “stress” the most oft-cited trigger, it’s also one of the two biggest obstacles (the other being rebound headaches, which I’ll be talking about soon) that can still obstruct the path to migraine freedom after folks adopt ancestral eating habits. The same hormonal and metabolic turmoil that’s created by the standard western diet — and alleviated by an ancestral one — is in many ways replicated by our stress response. And when we say we’re “stressed out”, it means we’re turning on that stress response multiple times throughout the day.
Here, that stress response isn’t being turned on by some type of immediate threat to our survival (which is why we have it to begin with), but rather by nothing more than our internal ruminations about the events of our life. It’s nothing more than our thoughts making us ill.
Nobody enjoys this type of stress, and — migraines or no migraines — most everyone tries to reduce it as best they can. The problem is that most folks go about doing so the hard – or, more accurately, impossible – way: by trying to control the events in their life. “If I could get rid of the things that stress me out, I could get rid of my stress” goes this line of thinking. “If I could only change jobs, or get that promotion. If I only had a better car. If I only…” True, perhaps if you could control every facet of your day to day existence such that every hour was spent in utopian perfection, maybe this strategy would work.
But that’s a fantasy.
Moreover, it’s also the hard road to stress management, and one that will almost always lead to failure. Fortunately, there’s a simpler, and more direct, way to stress relief and inner peace. One that’s been there all along, but that few folks ever see. And that is to simply end the tyranny of thought.
The research here is robust: those who are happiest are not those with the most money, fame, “success”, or facebook friends. They’re the ones who’ve escaped the tyranny of thought. They’re the ones who’ve figured out that happiness comes not from what happens to you, but with what happens within you. They’re the ones who’ve discovered that stress, and unhappiness, is ultimately a choice.
As the stoic philosopher Epictectus said:
“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Which brings me to mindfulness.
At its core, mindfulness is simply the practice of becoming aware of the contents of our consciousness – including that incessant internal chatter – and learning to observe it without judgment. Just recognizing that you have a narrator inside your head, and that your reaction to that narration is not a foregone conclusion, but a choice, is alone a powerful first step. Recognizing that you and the voice in your head are not one and the same can have tremendous transformative power.
At first blush, this may sound easy. But, unlearning behaviors you’ve spent a lifetime reinforcing won’t happen overnight. Ending the tyranny of thought through mindfulness requires practice and persistent effort, and is best acheived by incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine, in whatever way works for you. The rewards of doing so, however, are difficult to overstate, as they have the potential to affect every aspect of health, including migraines.
So where to start? There are lots resources available these days, from books and recordings to group meditations and mindfulness based psychotherapy. For a great introduction to the subject, I recommend Michael Singer’s “The Untethered Soul“. I’ll continue to revisit this topic here on the blog, and every Monday I’ll post a quote that relates to the subject, to serve both as inspiration and as a continual reminder that happiness is yours for the taking.
I’ll part today with the first installment: