During the summer of 2014, as a 17-year-old incoming senior in high school, I took a walk with friends to a local ice cream shop that would unknowingly change the course of my life forever. Half of a brownie flurry later, I was reaching for a bottle of Benadryl in our medicine cabinet as my stomach swirled. The walls seemed to be caving in on me as I laid on the bathroom floor with my parents by my side. Unwilling to change out of my favorite pajamas, we set off for the emergency room as I sat petrified in the backseat.
One IV of steroids and hours later, I checked out of the emergency room with an “all clear” from the doctor. Although my visual symptoms of nausea and hives were gone, the invisible consequences of my anaphylactic reaction remained untreated. The lasting impact of the chilling event was forever ingrained in my brain.
From that June afternoon onward, I struggled to eat. Every meal ended with a silent dash away from the dinner table, sure I was having another reaction. So convinced one night at the local movie theater, I left the film halfway through after breaking down in tears in the bathroom. At varsity swim practice, I became extremely troubled by workouts that limited our breathing. Instead of celebrating my senior season, I was counting down the days until the sport I once loved was over. I washed my hands until they bled, and hyper vigilantly sanitized surfaces that could be a cross contamination risk. Most intrusively, I was repeatedly lightheaded in unfamiliar situations, and began to have a Vasovagal Syncope episode whenever I was emotionally distressed. Similar to when someone becomes faint at the sight of needles, I would experience severe drops in blood pressure and pass out during school, at doctors appointments, and even in the grocery store.
What was happening to me? I did not have the words, nor experience, to describe what I was feeling. The confident, independent young lady I once was suddenly could not even enjoy a home cooked meal or go to a routine appointment alone. Every aspect of my life was severely afflicted in the aftermath of an allergic reaction I was “cleared” from months ago.
At my mom’s suggestion, and my loss for answers, we decided to seek professional help. Just four months after my reaction, every Saturday morning I began going to therapy. With the help of my new counselor, we processed through the mental and emotional toll of my recent allergic reaction – much of which was dismissed following my “all clear” at the emergency room. She utilized cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques to educate me about the body’s biological response to danger, explore effective coping strategies, and rediscover my sense of safety.
After months of unexplained distressing symptoms and fainting spells, I was finally provided with an answer. An anxious temperament dating back to my childhood had predisposed me to developing a Trauma and Stressor Related Disorder, characterized by reoccurring panic attacks and obsessive compulsive tendencies – All in response to my life threatening allergic reaction.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) is the psychology dictionary that details the symptomatology of all mental illnesses recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Psychologists and counselors alike utilize this collection of criteria to diagnose and treat their clients. Previously known as “Shell Shock,” Posttraumtic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often associated with veterans returning from war. While this disorder can certainly affect those in our military, this diagnosis is now applied much more broadly. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder requires a specific “Exposure to actual or threatened death” to meet full diagnostic criteria. Throughout the Posttraumtic Stress Disorder section of the DMS-IV, the American Psychiatric Association has listed hypothetical examples of traumatic events, such as serious vehicle accidents and physical abuse. Medical incidents also qualify as “Exposure to actual or threatened death” in the eyes of American Psychiatric Association – And on page 274, they directly identify anaphylactic shock.
While I certainly characterized my evening in the emergency room as a traumatic event, it was undoubtedly validating to see my experience plainly recognized by the leaders of the field.
*DISCLAIMER: Not every traumatic event (Ex. Anaphylactic shock) results in a diagnosable disorder. Please seek consultation from your doctor or a licensed mental health professional for more information.
A New Normal
Because anaphylaxis symptoms often mirror those of panic attacks (Stay tuned for a full blog post about the Fight or Flight Response), differentiating between a real or imagined threat was nearly impossible. Every shallow breath from panic symptoms felt like a tightening throat from nut allergens; Every racing heartbeat from anxiety felt like the beginning of an allergic reaction.
I attended approximately nine months of weekly therapy sessions tackling these exact concerns. Although the counseling I received in high school empowered me enough to head off to college out of state that next fall, I am by no means cured of my food anxiety. In fact, I continue to struggle to manage stress related to food allergies and beyond daily. While beginning to discern between anxiety and anaphylaxis was a leading treatment goal of my healing process, I am far from mastering it even seven years later. Despite my carefree smile in the photo above, the first sip of that drink had me second guessing my safety just weeks ago.
Trauma lives within the body and leaves a lasting impact that is not healed overnight. I have accepted that adjusting to my body’s natural alarm system will be an ongoing crusade throughout my lifetime.
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”– Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and the Body in the Healing of Trauma
Breaking the Stigma
A right of passage for seniors at my high school, the infamous Water Wars league debuted late spring semester. Split into teams of five, the elimination tournament had students dodging water balloons around the community just to win bragging rights. There were a strict set of rules, but anything off of school property was fair game. If you were splashed with water by the opposing team, you were out! Desperate the join in on the fun, I was gutted knowing I would have to watch from the sidelines. My teammates and opponents would surely learn about my Saturday morning routine, and I did not want anyone to know I was seeing a therapist.
Seeking professional help was a secret I kept from close friends and family for a number of years. I had always been the person others turned to for help and reassurance, so admitting my own struggles made me feel weak.
All Things Allergies was founded over a year ago, but I am finally ready to share my story. I have been floored with the number of individuals who have privately reached out to me about food anxiety. A few short years ago, I thought I was alone in this battle. Little did I know, I had a whole online community awaiting to support me. These connections continue to be the inspiration behind my blog – All Things Allergies is the resource I wish I had growing up with food allergies. Back in the height of my food anxiety, I would have been so comforted knowing I was not the only person suffering through this. If I can empower just one person with my vulnerability, every step in my recovery process will have been worth it.
A Particle of Goodness
“And nothing shows more strength than finding a particle of goodness in the worst of situations.”– Unknown
With tragedy comes triumph. While my allergic reaction derailed much of my senior year and continues to impact my everyday functioning, there were undeniable particles of goodness.
Because of the significant impact that my therapy journey had on the trajectory of my life, in the fall of 2021, I enrolled at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology to pursue my Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology. And this summer, after graduating with my limited license, I will be continuing my education at The Chicago School as a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology (Dr. Bauder has a nice ring to it, right?!).
The food allergy community deserves experts in the field doing advocacy work and ground breaking research on these topics. As I begin my doctoral education with a focus on the connection between food allergies and mental health, I take solace in knowing my suffering will not go to waste. Instead, my newfound strength can serve countless others in the future. My personal struggles with mental health and allergic reactions not only guided me towards a career in psychology, but towards a calling in life. I found even more than I could have asked for in those fifty minute sessions with my first therapist.
At the 2019 Food Allergy Conference for Education and Science (FACES) in Chicago, Illinois, I connected with licensed mental health professional, Tamara Hubbard, LCPC. She led a presentation alongside Dr. Jeanna Herzog, PhD., about the emotional impacts of anaphylactic episodes. Tamara Hubbard has created a Food Allergy Counselor Directory that spotlights mental health professionals across the United States who specialize in food allergy treatments. Her website also offers unique insights and resources for food allergy families struggling with a new diagnosis, resilience, or anxiety concerns. I hope to find myself on her directory one day!
Once deciding to steer my future towards a career in psychology, I began volunteering for a non-profit organization called Crisis Text Line. This twenty-four hour crisis hotline is operated completely via text message, perfect for the growing generations less comfortable with verbal communication. Whether you are struggling to calm down from a severe panic attack, need assistance processing through world events, experiencing suicidal thoughts, or are just looking for someone to listen, Crisis Text Line is there for you. Text HOME to 741741 to chat with a certified volunteer crisis counselor today.
Self care is a continuous process in and outside of the therapy room. One of the saving graces that has supplemented my counseling journey is the art of mindfulness meditation. Applications like HeadSpace and Calm offer moments of serenity throughout your busy day. Practicing thought acceptance, deep breathing, and grounding techniques are powerful tools for managing anxiety.
New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma was essential for understanding the physical and emotional mechanisms behind my body’s trauma response post diagnosis. Recommended by my therapist and a favorite in the psychology field, this book helped normalized the years of symptoms I never understood.
The connection between mental health and food allergies is a topic that will continue to be highlighted on All Things Allergies. Check out the ‘Mental Health’ highlight reel on my Instagram feed for research publications, newfound resources, inspiring quotes, and personal stories related to food anxiety.
Ready to start the therapy journey yourself? Psychology Today can help you find licensed, qualified, and experienced mental health professionals in your area at the click of a button.
With the widespread fear and social isolation brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic, like many others, I have elected to reengage in therapy this past year to ensure a prioritization of my own mental health. There is no shame in asking for support – It shows strength, not weakness!
To anyone out there dealing with something similar – You are not alone. One of the best ways to rid our communities of invalidating stigmas or stereotypes is to foster healthy dialogues and meaningful conversations. Our communication is key, so never hesitate to reach out to me with questions or concerns. Head over to the ‘Contact Me’ page of allthingsallergies.com for the best ways to get in touch.
All the best,
*DISCLAIMER: The content of this post is for educational purposes only, and should not be substituted for medical or professional advice. Please consult with your doctor or a licensed mental health professional for more information.
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