When the perfect storm is brewing in your health

What ends up being ‘the perfect storm’ in your health? We all experience it to some degree.

A perfect storm is all the components of bringing on a resulting event. The thought, “I can identify most, if not every part that brought this set of symptoms, circumstances, etc. on.” 

“Many symptoms plausibly serve signaling functions. Yet, determining whether a given symptom is a cue or a signal is difficult.”* As we know, initial symptoms can either continue to increase or may lessen and revert to a non-issue.

“Open wounds are not signals, because the underlying state is the wound itself, but the act of creating a wound can be a signal, as can any act that transmits information about the wound’s severity.”*

What led up to a perfect storm in my life? The prime example that comes immediately to mind was a day when I was overly-stressed (some by my own doing, as I had not yet learned ways to manage it), had not stayed properly hydrated, tossed and turned all night and was checking/responding to emails during those hours, had been eating off schedule, and working out to a point of low-level fatigue on lunch breaks.

What happened next took place late one night and was a mind-blowing headache where I was literally gripping my face/skull trying to conceal the pain and the onset of symptoms of viral meningitis and ultimately migraine. 

These circumstances and decisions all folded together into “my storm.”


The aftermath still lives on. I wish I could have left it all behind upon discharge from the hospital that next week.

As a migraine patient, the perfect storm can easily consist of sensitivity to light, throbbing pain, an ice pick-like sensation behind an eye, and full body exhaustion.

Speaking to a fibromyalgia patient, she said her “perfect storm” is taking on too many tasks in one day, overusing a limb (think scrubbing floors for a prolonged time), and feeling stressed.

“I have learned what my perfect storm is the hard way,” she said. “If I repeat those scenarios, it’s my own fault. I have learned to moderate my activities and lower my stress so that I feel as good as possible more frequently.”

Discussing what has led to a perfect storm of a COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) attack, a patient explained it was a mixed bag – it could be enduring too much heat/humidity in the environment, being at a higher-than-normal elevation, being on a new medication, a lack of sleep, and his body’s own stress response because his breathing was getting more and more labored.

I also have a patient’s example of a perfect storm for a gallbladder attack. It was consuming a rather large serving of breakfast sausage at a café. Gallbladders that are not operating at standard capacity do not like fatty meats. She said that quickly led to sharp pain that continued to intensify in the middle/lower abdominal region and becoming violently ill to the point she could not walk or really take care of herself. Once the storm passed, a level of exhaustion settled in, creating a lifeless feeling.

A friend of mine recently recounted that a business partner of his became ill with a migraine attack while they were together at an airport. As a close friend, he witnessed what led to his “perfect storm.” He also saw the after-effects, and really began to understand the impact migraine has on individuals. He expressed to me how bad he felt, how obvious and debilitating migraine can be, and what his business partner tries to do to manage its presence in his life.

For me – with migraine or other medical experiences, I shift my focus to how I can be better prepared next time when the storm blows into life. Something to consider if you haven’t already.

Mine includes: having plenty of water on hand, having an over-the-counter stomach calmer (think papaya enzymes) or a pain relief tablet or migraine emergency medication (Cambia) in my purse, keeping my phone charged and with me (when feeling helplessly ill, you might need to make a call for help), and clearing my calendar temporarily.

Nothing is more important than getting back on my feet. Not work. Not chores. Not extra text messages. If I need to, I call in a favor from someone I trust. This is why our network (and ensuring it’s a quality one), is vital for each of us.   I also feel that when it comes to chronic illness, it’s important to inform and educate your workplace on the illness or disease you live with.

Your individual storm in chronic illness is just that – individual – i.e. your own story, your own experience, and impactful in its own right. It’s not always the same path. The varying degrees of intensity, duration, and aftermath is analogous to the horrible destruction we’ve seen from fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters.

As individuals, after the storm, we learn to pick up the pieces and rebuild of sorts. It really re-defines us.  We also learn to relish the moments when the skies are clear in our health.

A fire ripping through my home town a little over a decade ago really had me facing reality. I had to quickly determine what was important to pack for evacuation – and what was not. I ended up feeling a wealth of gratitude because our home was spared. However, I also experienced utter disbelief and heartbreak for others who lost family, pets, and their homes. I can easily recall that experience due to its severity. 

While I certainly don’t wish a perfect storm or natural disaster on anyone, the fact of the matter is we must be prepared. Being prepared will lessen the burden, lessen the fear, and lead to an improved outcome (mentally / physically / emotionally). It may not change the inevitable, but you’ll find some relief in some categories. 

Struggles can define us, re-shape us, and serve as a catalyst for a better next time around.

I hope I made you turn your thoughts inward and reevaluate what leads to the perfect storm in your health and ascertain what you can do to make the next one less destructive. 

*Tiokhin, L. (2016). Do symptoms of illness serve signaling functions? (Hint: yes). The Quarterly Review of Biology91(2), 177-195.

Coming next: 5 key habits of high energy people