How To Find Calm When You Just Can't Even
For a long time, food allergies and mental health were not often discussed in the same sentence. Whenever I had a serious reaction over the years I'd be left with a lot of heavy feelings, I was developing obsessive habits and patterns, and I felt socially isolated and uneasy. As a teen I remember searching online for social studies done on people with food allergies; I wanted to know if others were feeling this way and if there was any research available on the topic. I wanted to be "a participant in a study" just so I could see the results. At the root of it I longed for validation from the medical community for what I was feeling.
What is reaction PTSD?
In this article I specifically want to talk about reaction PTSD. In January 2015 I suffered my most severe anaphylactic reaction and it changed my life forever. I'd had 5 reactions previously but none of them have affected me so deeply. It's even one of the reasons I started blogging; because I felt compelled to share my reaction story. That became the first blog post on my very old site that no longer exists (sorry not sorry). I had eaten a piece of bread, the same bread I had bought weekly for the past several years, and suddenly went into anaphylactic shock due to undeclared casein (dairy). Whether the ingredients were contaminated or the recipe changed and was not updated on the packaging, I'll never know.
Once the drugs at the hospital wore off I immediately felt a sense of dread, fragility, and vulnerability. That feeling stuck with me for a long time. I couldn't bring myself to enjoy food anymore. I felt claustrophobic, anxious, and nervous every time I took a bite of something. I started looking at every meal like it could be my last, amplifying the risk to exorbitant proportions. I looked at anything packaged or from a restaurant as a death threat rather than just something to be careful around. And every time I was in traffic, on transit, or on a plane, I felt extremely claustrophobic and would feel faint. What if I had a reaction and couldn't get out?
There was a distinct line marking before the reaction, and after the reaction. Before the reaction I was able to enjoy restaurants regularly without being completely overwhelmed with fear. I didn't avoid social situations as often, I didn't skip travel, and I wasn't claustrophobic. I bought foods that were either free from allergens accidentally or intentionally, and I ate them comfortably. If a server ensured me that my meal was free from dairy, nuts, peanut, and legumes, I trusted them and dug in. I used to be able to have a few drinks.
After the reaction I felt uncomfortable in any place that I could get "stuck"; the subway, airplanes, on the highway in traffic, elevators. Alcohol became a trigger for nervousness and worry. I completely lost trust for anything packaged that wasn't made in a dedicated allergen-free facility. I ate boiled potatoes and spinach for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for about a month. I was too scared to eat anything else. I'd buy a loaf of bread and let it go bad on my counter without taking a single bite. I felt like if I were the one to suggest we eat in a restaurant, then bad luck was more likely to strike and I'd have another reaction. I was suddenly superstitious. Brandon likes to say that I no longer ate with abandon, and he's right.
It's now been 2 years since that reaction and I have made significant improvements mentally. I now travel for work quite a bit, and I feel in control of the situation, not anxious. I dine out with my family more often, I buy the occasional packaged treat, and I don't panic and think I'm having a reaction every time I eat. There were a number of things I did to help myself get to this place...
Ways to find calm
Exercise: I started taking spin class at least once per week, and doing yoga more often. Prior to the reaction I had already been an active person but I became much more dedicated after. Exercise is a great way to clear your mind, stay focussed, and feel in control. For you it might be jogging, swimming, or pilates. Whatever your flavor, exercise can help you regain the feeling of confidence.
Have a bath: Allow yourself time to relax alone. I like to have a bath every day or every other day. Whether I'm travelling or at home, it's my nightly ritual.
Read: Try reading in the bath (that's what I do). It's amazing how quickly time can pass when you're reading a good book. I find that getting really into a good book leaves me with more mental clarity. Specifically I like reading either a book about the restaurant industry (try Sous Chef) or anything by David Sedaris.
Essential oils: There is so much you can do with essential oils. Burn them in an oil burner (you can get these at The Body Shop or home accessories stores) before taking a nap, take a bit of eucalyptus or lavender oil and rub it into your temples and all across your scalp. The scents will help relax you when you're coming down from an anxiety attack. I like to use Thursday Plantation lavender oil.
Simple rituals like making tea: Personally I find that simple rituals help me feel calm. Heat the water, warm the cup, steep the tea, sip, relax. The warmth of the cup is comforting too. By the time this ritual is over I can affirm to myself that I've been sitting here for 20 minutes and have not had a reaction.
Podcasts: Have you ever tried an ASMR podcast or Youtube video? They're a little strange at first but if you just go with it they can really help you calm down. I also search for mindfulness meditations and deep sleep podcasts to listen to at any time. Just make sure you have headphones on to get the full effect.
Affirmations: If you start having an anxiety attack use logic to talk yourself down. Does my mouth feel itchy? Am I swelling up anywhere? Can I close my hands easily? Is my throat sore? Has anything happened to cause a reaction? Do I have hives? Did I read the label? Take a deep breath.
Alone time: Even if I'm in the middle of a party sometimes I just need a moment to be alone and repeat some affirmations. Step out of the room, go outside, or pop into the washroom. Give yourself space to be alone with your thoughts for a few minutes. I like to find a mirror to check my face quickly for hives or swelling. I'm always pleasantly surprised to see I'm not covered in hives. It's interesting how your mind can amplify your worries; sometimes you need to just see yourself so you can say wow I know I'm being ridiculous, then move on.
Therapy: Last year I told my allergist that I was interested in seeing a therapist to talk about my reaction anxiety. Honestly I thought he was going to say I was overreacting. I hadn't known any of my other allergic friends to ever seek out help, or maybe they just didn't talk about it. He told me that kids as young as 3 were going to therapy to learn how to manage their anxiety and that he could refer me to a few people who specialized in this type of treatment. I still haven't booked an appointment, but I know that if things get bad again I have somewhere to turn for professional help.
I hope you find these strategies helpful in dealing with your own anxiety. Do you have any other strategies to share?
Thursday Plantation supplied samples of their oils for me to try