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Food Allergies and Trauma

Living with or caring for someone with severe food allergies is often stressful. The constant hypervigilance to keep ourselves or our loved ones safe, reading every ingredient label, asking every restaurant manager, and the nonstop food preparation is exhausting. But, did you know trauma is common among those who manage severe food allergies?

Trauma is an emotional response to a stressful event that makes you feel unsafe. Living with severe food allergies means that the entire world can feel unsafe at times, especially if you or your child's allergen is extremely prevalent. This sense of danger is often heightened if you or your child have experienced anaphylaxis, which is a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction. Going through anaphylaxis or watching someone you love experience it is incredibly stressful and can be traumatic. Unsurprisingly, in one small study on food-allergic children, 44% displayed symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Similarly, parents of food-allergic children have been found to display significant higher levels of anxiety than parents of their non-allergic counterparts. When our brains perceive danger, an alert is set off in our brains and we engage in something known as a trauma response. These trauma responses can be triggered when those with food allergies or food allergy caregivers are surrounded by reminders of a traumatic allergic reaction or in a situation similar to one in which they had a traumatic allergic reaction. Additionally, trauma responses can be triggered if those with food allergies feel unheard, ignored, or like their allergies are not being taken seriously, as their brains perceive that they are in danger.

Four common trauma responses have been identified in the research: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn which has recently been coined "appease" to be more sensitive to trauma survivors. With each of these trauma responses, your brain is preparing your body to keep itself safe by either fighting the threat, running away from it, freezing in place when you think you cannot fight or flee the threat, or appeasing the threat, which can occur if the other trauma responses have not been successful.

In the context of food allergies, these responses can show up in both children and adults when they feel unsafe. Both children and adults may display tightened jaw, clenched fists, yelling, and intense anger either at their allergies or the people who are making them feel unsafe. Similarly, they may experience shallow breathing, darting eyes that scan the room, inability to focus, restlessness, and even running out of the room if they feel unsafe. With the freeze response, people may hold their breath, be physically unable to move, feel stuck, emotionally numb, or go quiet when they feel unsafe. Children may also be spacey or have a hard time focusing when freezing. Some theorists even posit whining as a potential freezing behavior as this may stall the child and give them more time to evade the perceived threat. Lastly, appeasing is often a trauma response that people who have experienced multiple traumatic events engage in. This response may be triggered if the previous responses were ineffective at getting rid of the threat. Appeasing is often seen in the form of people-pleasing or trying to avoid conflict to maintain safety. Appeasement in a food allergy context could be having a hard time saying no when people push your boundaries, like bringing unsafe food into your home or inviting you to a restaurant you can't eat at. These responses can all be triggered by any situation that reminds someone of a traumatic allergy-related incident but are most often triggered by reminders of anaphylaxis.

Being aware and able to recognize these trauma responses within yourself or your children allows you to utilize positive coping skills and reduce the emotional distress quicker. Some examples of positive coping skills are listed below:

  • Grounding techniques including breathing exercises, engaging the 5 senses, 3-3-3 method

  • If unable to engage in grounding techniques because level of panic is too high, engage in distress tolerance skills like changing your body temperature by putting your head in cold water or engaging in vigorous exercise. The research shows these methods reduce emotional intensity by reducing the amount of energy the emotional center of our brain can utilize

  • Utilize coping skills once grounded such as meditation, positive affirmations, journaling, going on a walk, practicing self-care

  • Rely on social supports and share your feelings with others to reduce isolation and feel less alone

  • Seek professional help if needed, especially if you find yourself preoccupied by thoughts, feelings, or memories related to trauma

I know for myself, I often engage in the "freeze" trauma response. During my most severe anaphylactic reaction in 2017, I found it physically difficult to move and was unable to speak up for several minutes about the symptoms of anaphylaxis I was experiencing. When I am surrounded by reminders of this traumatic experience, I often find myself freezing. Being aware of this trauma response and the signs of it within myself have equipped me with the knowledge to better ground myself, cope with the stress I am experiencing, and ask for help. Before I was aware of this trauma response, I was completely stuck when I was reminded by my trauma or felt like my allergies were being dismissed. Now, I know that when I find it difficult to physically move, I have coping skills I can rely on to reduce my level of anxiety, make myself feel more safe, and communicate my feelings to others rather than shutting down.

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