Remember when people lived in caves and dodged jaguars all day? Me neither. But my brain does. That’s why, when I’m stressed out, my blood surges with adrenaline, drains to my extremities, and my attention hones in on the source of my stress. My brain is trying to help me dodge a jaguar even though that’s no longer my biggest problem.
Flash forward a few thousand years and what are our threats? Predators aren’t much of an issue anymore. Five years ago, however, I had a confrontation with a formidable opponent and it almost cost me my life. That foe was my lunch.
Having been contaminated at some point by peanuts, the food that puts me at-risk for anaphylaxis, the lunch sent my body into shock and only fast-acting doctors were able to save my life. I’ve heard this story repeated by many other people with allergies. But here is the part that often gets left out. After all the other symptoms faded, and my life was no longer in any immediate danger, I experienced crippling anxiety around food. My brain now considered every meal to be a jaguar.
At first I was nervous any time I ate. I never realized before how many sensations I experience with every mouthful of food. From itchy spots on my skin, to dry mouth, to an itchy tongue, and even stomach cramps, my new adrenaline fueled state of mind could not help but see danger in hundreds of little things that surrounded the normal experience of eating. For a while, even thinking about a meal cooked by someone else sent me into a full blown panic attack.
As time passed, the anxiety started to fade. But even months later I struggled to “act cool” in a restaurant. I was always on edge. Now, several years later, I still find myself losing my cool sometimes. My problem shifted from how to live with a severe allergy to how to live with food at all.
Through trial and error, as well as with input from some fantastic friends, I have a few strategies I use to overcome my anxiety when it arises and, more importantly, to ensure that I don’t have any major panic attacks.
The most important part of getting back to normal was coming to grips with the fact that anxiety is normal. Before this reaction, I had never experienced a panic attack. At first I fought against these with will power and resistance. Yet I inevitably made things worse. Once, while at a low point in this journey, I had been forcing down anxiety for several days when it all came exploding out at once…in the middle of a busy airport.
If you’ve never seen an adult throw a full-on temper tantrum, let me tell you, it isn’t pretty. It was embarrassing, stressful, and worst of all I was powerless as it happened. After this incident, I had the opportunity to hear from many other people with allergies. I wasn’t weird or abnormal for reacting this way. This is how it goes. In time I was able to gradually “let go” and accept that the trauma I experienced naturally led to a belief that food was dangerous. As I got better and better, I could sense an adrenaline rush coming on and just allow it to happen. I’d feel the surge rise and fall and then go back to my day.
Acceptance was only the first phase of the journey. In order to avoid the occurrence of the panic attacks in the first place, I realized I needed to do a better job of planning ahead. This goes right back to that caveman brain of mine. The panic response comes from being surprised. I began to plan my meals. Often my meals out of the house were spontaneous. I would be out with friends and we would stop at a restaurant wherever we were when we got hungry. I had to change and start telling people up front that I wasn’t ready to be adventurous yet. I had to tell people that there were only certain places I felt comfortable eating and that was that. Whenever possible, I didn’t even enter the building without first calling to speak to a chef. In other cases, I made my own food and avoided the situation all together.
The hardest part was realizing that managing this anxiety was going to be a long process. To help with that I had to be open about it. I started talking to my friends, family, and even co-workers. It was hard and vulnerable but it was also very helpful. I taught people about the things that triggered my panic and they helped me avoid them.
Despite all of my progress and efforts, there are still moments that trigger panic. If you think about it, that is good. If I have a real reaction, that panic may end-up keeping me alive. But, if I have an anxiety attack due to a false alarm, I need a strategy to snap back out of it. For this I found that my best tool is a good self-assessment. Before I continue, please note: I am not a doctor and this assessment is of my own design and not to be taken as medical advice. My self assessment is a system I use to quickly check for some of my biggest symptoms of an allergic reaction.
I bite my tongue to check for itchiness and swelling, pinch my ear to check for itchiness, lift the sleeve of my shirt (the whole shirt if I have enough privacy) to check for hives, and take a few deep breaths to test my airway and also calm down. This will either help me quickly determine that I am indeed having a reaction, or, instead, will reassure me that my symptoms aren’t present. I repeat this assessment (and a few other checks) regularly to see if anything changes. The trick with this one is to understand that I do have an allergy and that I do need to take it seriously. But I can do this calmly.
Life with a severe allergy can be very difficult. As humans, we are wired to react swiftly and intensely to dangers. When we experience the trauma that comes with an allergic reaction, this can lead to some mixed up signals in our brains and cause us to carry around extra anxiety. Now that I’ve shared my story with you, I want to encourage you to share yours. The anxiety and panic that many of us live with are normal occurrences and will never disappear. But, by being open and honest about these, we can help make the process easier and the panic attacks less frequent.