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What Sensory Overload Feels Like During a Migraine

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Once upon a time…

Who am I kidding.

Let me start over.

Most of the time in a land controlled by migraine…

Welcome to the world I like to call sensory overload. It hit me the other day that even though everyone understands what “senses” are, and everyone understands the concept of being overloaded, overworked or stressed, no one can quite sense what sensory overload really is.

So, I wanted to break it down, sense by sense, to give you a sense of my senses. Yes I am intentionally reusing the word over and over because it only makes sense.

1. Sight

Most people can see. If you wear glasses, the first part of sensory overload in reference to sight may actually be really familiar.

When a migraine strikes or gets too intense, I often really struggle to see. Sometimes its more depth perception related. I can be looking at something, say a page in a novel, and out of no where I can’t make my eyes focus on the words on the page. If I try really hard, sure I can see the words, but I certainly can’t concentrate on them.

Then everything gets really hazy. I can’t move my head and if anything in my peripheral moves, it sends sharp signals to my brain (literally), making the throbbing pain intensify.

Then there’s the second branch of sight, the sensitivity aspect. Lights. Oh, lights are horrible. The sun is horrible. A screen is horrible. The flashing lights on my internet modem, are horrible. Flashing lights actually are probably the worst, especially if its a florescent overhead light that is flickering as its about to go out, but the damn thing just won’t go out. Headlights are pretty bad too.

When it comes to bright lights, they’re impossible to avoid and I’ve slowly become more comfortable with just wearing my sunglasses inside without feeling like I’m being rude.

2. Taste

Of all the senses, this is my least favorite one that my migraine likes to screw with the most. No, my food doesn’t taste any different – this only happens if I take a certain medicine combination and happen to just lose taste altogether – my food is just not at all appealing.

Even if the nausea hasn’t set in yet, just the thought of eating can make it. Then the idea of eating anything that might have a smell (we’ll get to this one later), or any sort of flavor to it, is quite repulsing.

It may be my favorite food in the whole wide world, but if it has real flavor to it, for some reason, I can’t even fathom eating it during a full blown attack.

I keep a lot of toast and peanut butter around for when it gets really bad. There’s two reasons this is a great combination. To start, toast with peanut butter is filling enough to tide me over until I’m feeling better to eat more, and secondly, its pretty easy to eat slowly and won’t upset your stomach.

However, this issue with taste, leads to other, much larger issues. For instance: my weight. Imagine trying to maintain a healthy weight, when over half of your meals don’t consist of the proper amount of calories and definitely don’t have all the nutrients your body needs. This is why it really makes me cringe when people comment on how lucky I am to be so skinny, or that shopping must be great for me. Like no, actually, I constantly am battling trying to maintain a healthy weight and even this “healthy” weight is much leaner than I ever would want to be.

3. Smell

Let me start by saying I would spend every cent I earned if I didn’t have medical expenses on putting the perfume industry out of business. I’ve walked into a bathroom that some lovely lady just left and vomited on the spot because of the intense perfume smell.

And perfumes, it isn’t just you. It’s scented lotions as well. Let me tell you, there are some wonderful lotions that rely on essential oils to get their scent. Not only are the natural, but they won’t send people around you rushing to the bathroom to get sick, or rushing home because you just ignorantly triggered an extremely painful migraine. A

Then it boils down to the food I’d just love to consume. All the time. Some days the lovely aroma of whatevers cooking will draw me and I’ll be dying to taste it, other days it has the same awful effect of the perfume. And it can be something so simple like the roasting garlic being used to start a dish, or the fresh slow cooker pulled pork when you remove the lid of the crock pot, or the eggs you’re desperately trying to cook while you’re in a rush to attempt to go to school, even though the pain is unbearable.

It’s normal foods. It’s normal smells. But when a migraine intensifies, so do your senses, and all of a sudden a regular smell is an absolute no-no, and will, wait for it, probably make you super nauseous.

4. Sound

Sound is far the oddest intensification I’ve ever experienced. And this one doesn’t ever really completely go away. I kid you not, my migraine superpower (aside from being the only accurate weatherman) is being able to hear through soundproof walls. Soundproof. They are advertised as soundproof, and I’m the only one that disagrees.

My roommates have all thought I was a bit dramatic. Yes, actually I can hear your television through the wall. Yes, I can hear what the characters are saying word for word. Oh, you have it on the lowest setting that you can hear? Gotcha. Sorry.

And this intensification for some reason doesn’t stop when the migraine attack does.

The hardest part is the intensity of sound during an attack. That clock on the wall? It’s ticking, isn’t it? That clock on the bathroom sink in the next room? It’s ticking. Ticking. Ticking. Ticking. Until the ticking is screaming in my ear, and it doesn’t matter what part of the lecture my professor is on, and it doesn’t matter if I was dead asleep and that the clock is in a whole separate room, the ticking is screaming. The ticking is crawling through my skin. The ticking is pulsing in sync with my head. But now the ticking is speeding up. But that means this pulsating pain is also speeding up. And it won’t stop until I either break the clock, or remove myself from where the clock is.

Clocks have the capacity to send me into a full-fledged panic attack.

And my ears are always ringing. But I’m going to assume that’s just my enlarged blood vessels pulsating and my odd sense of hearing deciding it wants to have background noise.

5. Touch

To start, to anyone who has ever suggested I have an orgasm to cure my migraine, well…I have words for you.

Now let me explain why. Let me introduce you to allodynia. This is a side effect of many conditions, especially common for chronic pain or neurological related issues. Allodynia is essentially a term used to describe pain occurring when pain shouldn’t occur, in places pain wouldn’t normally occur. For me, I think of allodynia as if any portion of my body is touched, my migraine will move their until whatever is touching me is removed.

This is present usually when a migraine attack has drained on for days and days without any relief from the stabbing pain.

I turn the water on in the shower and I can already feel the pain. Yes, partially in conjunction with the sound, but I can anticipate how much it’ll feel like each water droplet is pressing on a bruise that doesn’t exist. Then after my miserable shower, I’m met with the even more agonizing need to brush out my hair. And let me tell you, when every hair follicle radiates pain as you try to brush through your hair, the idea of shaving it all off sounds ideal.

I set my soft face mask icepack over my eyes, and gently lay on another cold pack shaped to fit my neck. But the cold doesn’t help the pain. Every point of contact just hurts worse. I can’t push through and let the cold do its job.

The soft blanket. The pajamas. Any jewelry. All of it feels like sandpaper on my skin.

Now imagine trying to have sex. I can’t brush my hair without crying. My softest clothes are causing agony. And you want me to have an orgasm. Sure let me just touch the “have an instant orgasm button without any physical contact button.”

Now do you get the point?

When I say sensory overload – this, all of this, all put together in one giant package with a bonus of my brains pressing inward and outward simultaneously– is what I mean.

No, I don’t always experience it. Sometimes I experience a few senses being out of whack. Sometimes that’s the way I can tell that I’m about to be hit with some serious pain that will knock me on my ass, sometimes literally.

What I hope you get out of my sharing this information and breaking it all down, is a greater sense of awareness. You can’t control my migraine, hell, I can’t either.

But you can control how loudly you speak when you’re standing next to me.

You can control the amount of perfume you use.

You can control how abrupt you are. I know it doesn’t occur to you. It certainly doesn’t occur to doctors who knock on the door as I jump out of my skin because it went from dead silence to abrupt noise. All it takes is awareness, and a more gentle approach.

Speak softly when you’re near people, and for Pete’s sake. Don’t bring a beachball to throw around with questions on it to class, my lack of depth perception during an attack can’t handle that.

Getty Images by Dziggyfoto

Follow this journey on Battle Against Migraine.

Originally published: May 11, 2018
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