The weird thing about trauma exposure is that it can come back in unexpected, powerful ways. Even years after the trauma has occurred, and you have been mostly symptom-free, something can trigger a trauma response and you are nearly powerless to its might.
Trauma affects the way our brains develop, how we behave, and how we process and experience the world around us. I never used to think of my anaphylactic allergic reactions as “traumatic”, however the more I have been exposed to the world of trauma therapy and trauma exposure, the more I’m able to recognize the ways in which I developed some serious issues related to my allergic reactions and near-death experiences.
When I was going through therapy with Ken several years ago to address the anxiety and panic attacks that had developed as a result of my allergic reactions, we didn’t call it trauma exposure or trauma response. We just dealt with the thoughts, beliefs, and symptoms I was experiencing as a result of some pretty traumatic experiences. I did such good work with Ken– together we completely stopped my panic attacks and got ahold of my anxiety. Life changed in so many positive ways.
So life carried on. I stopped eating out, I set more firm rules for myself to avoid allergic reactions, I found a lot of fulfillment in writing about my experiences and in helping others with allergies and/or anxiety find acceptance and healing despite the circumstances. While I recognize that being in control is an illusion, I have felt pretty “in control” of my body and health for the last 9 years.
Then came baby.
I started experiencing pregnancy symptoms really early, around week 5. I know some women can go weeks and weeks and not feel or look pregnant, but that was definitely not my case. I felt different, both physically and mentally, and before I was even late for my period, a test confirmed that I was pregnant. Almost as soon as I read the word “pregnant” on the test did I start feeling nauseated, exhausted, and overall pretty lousy.
I was prepared for the physical symptoms– those are well known and expected. What I wasn’t prepared for were the mental and emotional symptoms that seemed to hit harder than my constant nausea and fatigue and random stabbing pains and feelings like my guts were going to fall out of my lady parts.
Anyway, the mental symptoms.
I have to imagine a wildly changing body is hard for every single pregnant woman, but in addition to that, I experienced a pretty significant resurfacing of my anxiety and body trauma response from my allergic reactions that I definitely hadn’t expected.
I mean, I thought I took care of that. Ken and I worked together very diligently for a year to train those demons. We broke those wild horses and put them in a stable where they lived happily and stayed out of my way. In fact, a lot of the time, I forgot those horses and that stable even existed– after all it has been 9.5 years since my last anaphylactic reaction and over 7 years since my last panic attack. Those wild, raging horses were STABLED AND FORGOTTEN, OKAY?!
But again, that’s the thing about trauma. Something, anything really, can trigger your brain or body and IT REMEMBERS. Your brain and body hold onto trauma like a kid holding onto a security blanket.
I woke up Isaac one morning with tears streaming down my face and barely able to talk through my sobs. I explained to him that I was lightheaded and felt nauseated and just “felt weird”, and intellectually I KNEW these were really normal pregnancy symptoms, but my brain was sending emergency signals to my body. For the past 30-something years, my brain has been trained that if I ever start feeling “weird” out of the blue, there is likely an impending life-threatening situation. Countless times in my past, I have been eating dinner with friends or having a drink with a family member, and I suddenly “feel weird” and get a little lightheaded. Maybe I suddenly feel a little nauseated. Most people wouldn’t think too much about this, maybe they ate something that wasn’t “sitting right.” But for me, these small sensations are a canary in a mine. Over 20 times I have experienced these while eating or drinking something, and within minutes, my throat is closing, blood pressure dropping, and emergency intervention is required or else it means lights out. And we won’t get into that one time that the nurse who was supposed to be saving my life gave me the wrong medicine and accidentally killed me for 90 seconds. So, I mean, there is a bit of trauma my brain has held onto when I suddenly have the feeling of “something feels off.”
So back to that teary morning. I walked into Isaac’s room sobbing my eyes out because I suddenly realized the problem, and it felt like a ton of bricks was simultaneously put onto my shoulders and removed at the same time. I saw the problem, but wasn’t sure if there was anything I could do about it…or if I had the strength to do something about it.
My body had been trained to scream EMERGENCY when I suddenly feel strange body sensations or something out of the ordinary, but in pregnancy, you feel strange sensations and general ill-feelings every 10 minutes or so (at least in that first trimester). I told Isaac that now that I realized the problem, I probably needed to get some professional help or else it was going to be a LONG 8 months.
I tearfully got dressed for work, a little relieved that I pinpointed why I felt so scared and panicky every time I felt my body bubble or hurt or suddenly make me want to vomit or pass out. I also felt terrified that it meant I would probably have to dive deeper into the anxiety and past anaphylaxis trauma to work on overcoming this body response I was having.
More on that next.