“After all, when a stone is dropped into a pond, the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom.”― Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha
Memoirs of a Geisha is hands down one of my favorite books of all time. Such an incredible story told through bone shattering trauma and pain. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful.
I love that quote and think about it often.
The ripple effect of that small stone hitting the water can carry on for miles, similar to how an experience can continue to impact us long after it has come to pass.
Sometimes, those experiences leave a bad taste in our mouths. We might feel scared, angry, or threatened.
Well, our bodies remember those feelings. It takes note of those negative reactions and tucks that information away to recall again in a time of perceived need.
Even if it has been decades, a certain trigger or situation might suddenly and violently throw us for a loop.
We call that trauma.
Merriam-Webster defines trauma as, “A disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.”
In the past, whenever I heard someone tell me that a story I shared was traumatic, I would just laugh it off. “It’s not as bad as what other people experience. It could have been worse.”
I had learned those phrases from other people in my life that had already diminished my pain and my story. These toxic words soaked into my brain and I started internalizing their thoughts. Slowly and surely, their voices morphed into my own internal abuser.
I started denying and dismissing my own feelings in an attempt to move forward and past my pain.
Eventually, I came to recognize that my way of coping with my trauma was very unhealthy. There needed to be validation of my experiences, no shaming when feeling my emotions, and continual processing of triggers.
And so I’ve been on a journey of healing with a professional counselor for over a year.
Honestly, in just a year, I feel decades wiser in understanding my trauma, triggers, and my trauma responses.
In particular, learning about the different trauma responses has been instrumental to understanding my own behaviors and reactions to certain things.
Especially since past trauma impacts my current experiences of caring for children with food allergies.
Just a loving reminder: I am not a licensed doctor or therapist. I’m sharing my experience of what I have learned in my healing journey. I don’t profess to have any specialized training. If you think you have experienced trauma, give yourself permission to reach out to a licensed counselor that could assist you further.
Responding to Perceived Threats
I think the way the human body was created is simply amazing. The way the brain functions and adapts is truly unparalleled.
When confronted with something that we deem threatening, in literally just milliseconds, our body assesses each situation differently and then determines how to respond.
IN LESS THAN A SECOND!
For example, anyone that hikes in the Rocky Mountains knows to be aware of their surroundings. It is not uncommon to hear of hikers coming face-to-face with mountain lions in remote areas or even populated areas.
So imagine that you are hiking, minding your own business, and suddenly you hear a twig snap and the soft shifting of shrubs. You look up and see a fierce feline gaze just a few feet away from you.
Immediately, you go into “lizard brain” mode. We call it that because it is literally all an actual lizard has to work with as far as brain capacity goes.
Your limbic cortex takes over your mind and body. It’s job is to secure our most primal and basic need – survival.
There is now a clear threat to your physical being when you see that cougar. Will you run? Or prep to fight?
It is actually hard to predict how you would respond in that moment. Our brains assess scary situations quite quickly. The brain examines each situation differently by calculating risk.
Moreover, our brain takes into account body language, smells, the surrounding environment, and sounds to determine how it should respond.
Your body will react in whatever way it thinks will give you the best chance at survival.
Trigger Warning: This post explores examples of different types of traumas and possible responses to that trauma. Please use caution. If you feel triggered while reading this, please be kind to yourself and exercise self-care before going further.
There Are 4 Main Responses
It is likely that at some point in your life, you’ve heard of the 4 main types of responses to trauma (all functions of the limbic system).
Life Science Health has a fantastic article explaining the 4 different types of trauma responses. Check it out HERE.
To keep it simple, fight response is when your body reacts in a physical or verbal way to the perceived threat. Flight response is fleeing from the threat, and freeze response is your body or brain shutting down in the moment to protect itself.
Fawn response is new information to me, but I understand it to be a response in which you try to soothe or appease the threat.
I have also learned 2 additional pieces of information about trauma responses that I feel have really helped me.
- People usually have one or two dominant trauma responses, though they can experience all.
- There are “healthy” ways to respond for each trauma response, and “unhealthy” ways to respond.
Understanding these key points has been instrumental for me to understand what is happening inside of my brain and body when I’m put into a triggering situation.
Examples of the 4 Trauma Types in Relation to My Experience with Food Allergies
Lauren’s family and mine recently traveled to the Denver area to go to Dinosaur Ridge. This place has a fun hike along a hill that has dinosaur footprints jutting up out of the rock. It’s so cool!
Our kids were really excited to go on this adventure too! We packed up our safe snacks, waters, strollers and wagons and set out. There were many fun moments throughout the entire experience.
However, on our way back, Lauren noticed that we had all just walked our stroller, wagon, and kids through a pile of peanuts.
They had clearly been there for awhile because the shells and peanuts had been trampled over so much that they were hardly recognizable, which is why Lauren and I hadn’t noticed them at the start of our hike.
Two of the four children with us had a severe peanut allergy. We were walking on a dirt path, stirring up all that peanut residue into the dust, which was billowing into the air.
We weren’t sure if we were breathing it in or how much of it had settled on us and our stuff.
Needless to say, we were immediately triggered by the possibility of danger.
And we reacted.
Personally, I started walking ahead quickly, pushing my children in the stroller despite knowing that my husband was calling after me to slow down. I wanted to get my children as far away as possible from the threat.
I had water bottles in my car and lots of extra wipes. All I could think about was getting to our vehicle so that I could wipe my stroller down and get my kids’ shoes off.
Technically, that was a flight response. I wanted out and away from the food allergy threat as soon as possible.
Lauren’s response to the threat was a bit different. She did indeed want to get away, but she also was in “fight” mode. Now, it’s important to note that a fight response does not always mean aggression or fighting for one’s life.
Lauren’s fight response was to immediately take care of the situation by walking a ways away from the threat and then addressing it. She pulled out wipes and started scrubbing our things and the kids down.
Our responses were not wrong or “bad” in any way.
I just wasn’t in my normal mindset at the time. Everything in my body was screaming that I still needed to get us away from where we were standing. It was hard for me to slow down enough to think through my next step.
Looking back on that time, I felt a lot of guilt for the way I reacted. Why couldn’t I calm down? Why didn’t I stop and scrub down my things? Was it really so hard for me to stop running away and deal with it differently?
I shamed myself about how I responded and told my counselor about this experience.
Lovingly, she talked me through the fact that my body responded to that threat in the only way it knew how, which my body had already learned through past trauma experiences, and that was to run.
Eventually, she helped me recognize that one of my main trauma responses is to flee a triggering situation in whatever way I deem necessary at the time.
This even applies to social gatherings where the occasional person is less than kind about food allergies and I feel angered or blindsided. Additionally, I’ve had situations were my child’s allergen was served at a function, even if I had talked to the host about it ahead of time.
In those moments, warning bells start going off in my head and my body starts tensing. Those are the times when I get ready to scoop up my kids and leave.
Healthy and Unhealthy Flight Responses
Remember, trauma responses are not bad, but some are less healthy for us over time. Food allergies are anxiety producing because we are dealing with food daily, multiple times a day.
So the threat of a possible allergic reaction is constantly present in the backs of our minds.
It is completely okay to be triggered by something that scares you. Honestly, there isn’t much you can do to stop that from happening. However, you can learn about trauma and the ways in which you typically respond.
For example, if your child is allergic to dairy and you go meet your family at the park for a playdate only to find melted ice cream all over the equipment, you are not “overreacting” to want to leave.
No matter what anyone else says to you in that moment, or might think of your response, that is a healthy flight response in the face of potential danger.
However, if that one incident scared you so badly, or even resulted in a reaction, you might vow to never allow your child to do a playdate again. Your feelings would be valid and you would not be wrong in your fear.
But the choice to isolate so drastically would probably not be life giving, or healthy, for you or your child in the long run.
The fight response is not typical for me, though I have found myself in that state. My first year out of college I moved myself up to a small island in Alaska to teach.
The island was beautiful. Gorgeous mountains jetting straight up out of the sea with dense forest. Words can hardly describe the scenery in which I lived.
Since I was straight out of college, I did not have a car and was living in a tiny apartment. So every Friday, after the school week was done, I strapped on a large backpack and walked to the local market for my food.
However, having lived there a few days, I quickly learned that the island was full of dogs. Some people took care of their dogs, and others did not.
Many of these dogs probably had never had a bath in their life or a vet visit. A large percentage of them ran around looking for food and water constantly. It was heartbreaking to see, truly.
There was one dog in particular that I struggled with. He was a large mutt, probably weighing in somewhere around 100 pounds or more. His name was Tank. Because he really was HUGE.
He would see me coming with all my groceries and literally mow me down, ripping the bags out of my hands to eat the contents.
This went on for months. I tried new routes and different ways to deter him. Sometimes I’d even buy him a bone to see if I could throw it and distract him long enough to run home. Sometimes it worked. Most often it did not.
Then one day he attacked me physically.
One evening, as it was getting dark, Tank leaped at me from behind some bushes. I raised my groceries up in the air and yelled at him to get away.
He jumped up on my chest and snapped his jaws in my face. I dropped all the groceries, breaking open a gallon of milk in the process. Tank immediately set to work eating. I should have just left, but all I saw was red.
I reached down and tried to pick my groceries up. That’s when he turned and sank his teeth into my arm. Thankfully, I was wearing a thick jacket with a sweater underneath. My only injury would be a black and blue bruise.
But I literally lost my mind.
I honestly don’t know what came over me or what I was thinking. I jumped on that dog and wrestled him to the ground, all while he was snarling at me.
After what felt like hours, I managed to get him under me and I pinned him with my knees until he stopped fighting back. Once he was calm, we both jumped up. We stared at each other warily, breathing ragidly.
Finally, he sauntered away, never to bother me again.
Healthy and Unhealthy Fight Responses
That is the clearest example in my life that I can think of when I fought to protect myself physically.
However, fight response does not always look like that, especially if you are dealing with food allergy triggers or trauma situations.
For example, I really struggle to “fight” for myself or my children when put into an uncomfortable situation in public. I’ve had to process this with my counselor and come up with a plan ahead of time that I can put into action.
Healthy fight responses for food allergy safety might look like:
- Setting firm expectations with family and caregivers in how you would like them to interact with your family. Example: “We are excited to see you! Just so everyone is on the same page, we ask that you wash your hands and take off your shoes when you come to visit next week.”
- Creating clear food safety rules for your family and extended family. Example: “Please do not offer my child any food at our visit. We have all their safe food.”
- Speaking up to educate people that challenge your food allergy safety boundaries.
- Telling people “no” and implementing logical consequences. Example: “Come on, it’s just one bite. Let her eat it.” —> “No. It is not a safe food and we do not feel comfortable. If you cannot hear and respect our ‘no’ then we will leave.”
These are all healthy reactions in the face of triggering situations that might invoke a fight response.
Unhealthy reactions would be when we lose our tempers, scream or yell, or use harsh language to protect ourselves. It doesn’t mean we are bad people if that happens. After all, we are only human.
But to continue to react that strongly every time we are triggered would eventually be unhealthy for us and those around us.
The freeze trauma response is one that I experience occasionally as well. My freeze response typically manifests when I just cannot believe what someone is telling me, or they are clearly angry, or directing harsh words at me.
It really does feel like my brain and body shuts down. I cannot even think of a coherant thought let alone get it to come out of my mouth.
I remember this happening to me with several family members that have strong personalities. They kept asking many questions about my daughter’s food allergies, which eventually led to statements of accusation.
“Well, if you hadn’t induced, then she probably would be okay.”
“I wish you wouldn’t have vaccinated her. That most likely messed with her immune system.”
“Well, I guess I just have faith that she will be healed. Haven’t you been praying about this?”
In the past, I totally shut down after these comments, which later made me feel so angry with myself. Not saying anything at all made it seem like I was in agreement with them, or worse, a total doormat.
Again, I have learned not to punish myself for what I didn’t know in the past. I am now equipped with a vast amount of knowledge about trauma responses and still learning about them daily.
So now, if I’m confronted with these situations in the future, I would choose one of the following healthy responses:
- Taking deep breaths.
- Counting to 10 in my head to reorder my thoughts.
- Using scripted responses that I practiced ahead of time so that it was easier to recall in the moment. For example: “Ouch. That hurt.” Or, “Yikes. To me, that sounded like you are blaming me for my child’s allergies. I refuse to take that on.”
And, “I feel unheard and uncomfortable. Excuse me.” And then removing myself from the situation.
This is my other dominate trauma response, which I started using over the last 13 years or so. Fawn response has many unhealthy behaviors such as:
- Extreme people pleasing due to fear of loss of relationship.
- Apologizing constantly.
- Enabling toxic behavior from others in order to avoid someone’s anger or rejection.
- Lack of boundaries to keep another person happy, which can result in a false sense of safety.
My counselor helped me recognize that in order to keep the peace during family functions and within my dysfunctional work environment, I responded using these tactics.
They made me feel like I was safer, but in reality I was losing myself.
For instance, one of our family members was going to take my daughter for a day so that my husband and I could go on a date. We had packed safe foods for my daughter and asked them not to feed her anything else.
It must have gone in one ear and out the other ear for this person.
They told us that they were taking our child to go get ice cream from the nearby ice cream shop because it would be fun. My daughter has peanut and sesame allergies.
Shocked, I immediately said no, but then followed that answer up with an apology for having to tell them no.
Then I followed that up by offering to go buy treats that were safe for my child, even though there were plenty of them packed already. *Face palm.*
Not my best reaction, ladies. I wish I could turn back time and do it differently.
Replace the Unhealthy Behaviors with Healthy Ones
That person no longer gets to be alone with my child since they continually demonstrate a lack of respect for our food allergy safety rules. And thankfully, I have also learned how to respond better.
Especially not apologizing for having to say “no” to someone.
I am allowed to say no. They are allowed to feel upset. I am not responsible for fixing their feelings.
I have worked hard to recognize the times I have responded that way in the past. Together with my counselor, we created a list of healthy ways for me to respond in the future.
- Showing kindness towards people’s thoughts, but not taking responsibility for their emotions.
- Saying “no” and not apologizing for doing so.
- Saying “no” and not explaining myself.
- Actively evaluating each individual situation and compromising where I can.
People’s Understanding of Your Trauma Responses Will Vary
To an outsider looking in, the way we respond to food allergy situations, or triggers, could be considered “overreactive” or silly. In reality, our bodies are responding quickly to the biological need to protect ourselves and our children from a perceived threat.
In a perfect world, that’s where understanding and compassion should come in to play. We would love for people to see us in those moments and think, “That person is triggered by something and reacting to that trigger. I wonder how I can support them.”
Thankfully, Lauren and I are typically able to see this in each other, which means we can then process through triggers together.
We also have many people in our safe circles that also understand trauma. Those people are instrumental in helping us navigate those scary situations safely.
But there will be people that do not understand. My husband and I have even heard a family member tell us in our own home that trauma is overdramatized and exaggerated so that people can continue to act like victims.
Sometimes, people will just be hard-hearted towards this topic. Sadly, they refuse to acknowledge other people’s pain.
That decision is not on me, and it’s not on you. It’s on them.
All we can do is hope that they will one day be in a healthy enough emotional state to want to grow as a human being.
Along with counseling, there have been many more resources that have been helpful to me in understanding trauma and trauma responses.
- “Cleaning up the Mental Mess” with Dr. Caroline Leaf. Her podcast on understanding the 4 trauma responses has been vital to me (episode 403).
- “The Place We Find Ourselves” with Adam Young. The way he describes trauma and the impact on the brain is incredible (check out episodes 20, 79, and 80).
- “Boundaries” by John Townsend and Henry Cloud
- “The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
These resources were very informative and gave me a clear understanding of what was happening inside of my body and my mind when I experienced painful or terrifying situations. I hope they are helpful to you!
What does this stir up in you?
Lastly, if we could sit down and share our stories with each other, here are some things that I would lovingly ask you.
- How are you doing on this food allergy journey?
- What emotions are you experiencing in this season of life?
- How does it feel to hear someone else’s story of pain and anxiety? Does it stir up your own emotions or memories?
- Can you see yourself in any of these responses when navigating life with food allergies?
- If you know you have experienced trauma, what have you done, or what are you currently doing, to support your own healing?
- Do you feel alone right now? If so, what steps can you take to find more support?
If this blog post has made you ponder your own reactions to situations, then it might be worth digging a bit deeper.
We cannot tell you whether or not you’ve experienced trauma around food allergies (or in other settings), but we can share our own experiences with you.
Darling, you are good. You are lovable, worthy, and precious. If you are in a season of life right now where you desperately need more support, then you are not alone. Reach out. We promise it’s worth it.
In the meantime, just know that we too have had low moments and pulled ourselves up out of dark pits to pursue healing.
There are people out there that will reach down and help lift you out. You need but simply cry out. Don’t stop trying until you find what you need. <3