In addition to over 30 life threatening bouts of anaphylactic shock, I have also been diagnosed with Panic Attacks.
The freaky thing is: panic attacks and anaphylaxis have the same initial symptoms!!
Your throat feels like it is closing up and you feel like you are going to die!!
Is it true anaphylaxis? Or is it a panic attack?
During lunch today I decided to try an experiment and record my experiences to see exactly how identical anaphylactic shock and panic attacks actually are.
DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. If you are my parents, stop reading now.
I undertook this experiment on myself only because the data it would yield would far outweigh the risks. And I currently own two new Epipens, and have been practicing mindfulness meditation for over two years. I felt up to the task of recording my experiences objectively without judgment and responding accordingly. I have not have an actual panic attack in years. No way was I going to let my mind be overtaken by fear.
My motivation for the lunch experiment comes from listening to stories of other patients who donate blood at Benaroya Research Institute. Tthe study Coordinator was telling me about other peanut allergic donors experiencing terror and the symptoms of their throats closing up when peanuts are eaten around them and in the same room. One blogger,has continuously blogged about how her ‘throat closes up’ and she ‘cannot breathe’ and goes into “anaphylactic shock” when peanuts are nearby.
As a science enthusiast, these accounts make me extremely skeptical. According to the scientific research, unless a peanut protein molecule is inhaled directly, ANAPHYLACTIC SHOCK IS IMPOSSIBLE. Peanut allergy requires direct contact or ingestion to light the fuse of a deadly reaction. My personal experience backs up the science.
What is going on here? The science directly contradicts the anecdotal accounts! Let’s take a look at anaphylactic shock.
Anaphylaxis doesn’t just occur with a single symptom, multiple bodily systems are affected. Wikipedia mentions similarities between anaphylaxis and panic attacks:
It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish anaphylaxis from asthma, syncopy, and panic attacks. Asthma however typically does not entail itching or gastrointestinal symptoms, syncope presents with pallor rather than a rash, and a panic attack may have flushing but does not have hives.”
This is fascinating.
Scientific Method Step Number One: Question:
If medical professionals find it challenging to differentiate between panic attacks and anaphylaxis, how are peanut allergic people with no medical training supposed to know the difference?
I was going to find that answer through this experiment if it was the last thing I ever did! I have a deep faith in science, an unquestioning belief that the peer reviewed research on this subject was right on. I knew from the very core of my being, that science was correct.
And science tells us that eating and crunching peanuts next to a peanut allergic person will not cause an anaphylactic reaction.
My hypothesis: people with peanut allergies who believe that they are experiencing anaphylactic shock with only a couple symptoms including ‘throat feelings of closing up’ are actually experiencing panic attacks.
My hypothesis (II): people who say that they will go into anaphylactic shock just by being in the same room as someone eating peanuts are most likely reacting out of fear due to panic attacks, not actual anaphylaxis.
My hypothesis (III) Science is true. I am right.
I would like to mention that on the Wikipedia article about anaphylactic shock, there are only three things specified in the “management” section: Epinephrine, Adjuncts (corticosteriods and antihistamines), and Preparedness.
At no point in Wikipedia does it have any mention of “allergen free zones” in the management part of the anaphylactic shock article. This is important. Why would mainstream science not recommend the drastic peanut free zones that some allergy bloggers insist on? Why would Wikipedia overlook episodes of anaphylaxis if this fatal food allergy was actually airborne?
Answer and Prediction: Wikipedia does not mention them because peanut allergy is not airborne! Unless you are in a tiny pressurized cabin in an airplane and someone opens a dusty bag of peanuts, being in the same small room with someone eating peanuts will not cause anaphylaxis. It may make a peanut allergy person itch like Hell if hugs are given. Peanut allergic fear mongers are overreacting to peanuts in the environment are actually having panic attacks.
Test and Observations: Situation 1:
I was at this art gathering a few weeks back and people were eating and crunching peanuts in the same room as me. I shook someone’s hand, they’d been eating peanuts, I washed my hands, and then I wore gloves, I was safe. Didn’t eat any of the food and avoided the 3 snack tables. The hungry people ate their peanuts and I made some art. I am not a very good artist, so the art was probably terrible. But I had no reaction and I was fine.
I had to keep reminding myself, “I am safe, science is correct” over and over. Because being around peanuts when you are as deadly allergic as I am is downright terrifying.
My body is always aware of peanuts in the environment before my conscious mind is. My body knows. If someone has eaten peanuts in the room within a week, I know. My body feels a certain way, and I become alarmed. When traces of the smell or protein are picked up by even one of my 6 trillion cells my body goes into fight or flight and tells me, “DEADLY ALLERGY!! GET OUT OF HERE NOW!”
I have found that I can consciously override my fight or flight mechanism using mindfulness, logic, and reason.
I am a human being, not a primitive reptile fighting or fleeing from danger!
I don’t want to live life with my reptile brain and allow my amygdala (fear center) running the show!
I choose to embrace my humanity and live consciously, which means that I acknowledge, but do not succumb to The Fear.
Test Situation 2: Lunch of Terror.
The set up: I was hungry and decided to go out to The Than Brothers restaurant for a big bowl of pho, a type of Vietnamese noodle soup. Normally Vietnamese restaurants use tons of peanuts. The Than Brothers is one of the few that do not have any menu items containing peanuts. I’d eaten here 3 times before with no allergic reactions.
But there is always the possibility that a cook could have been eating peanuts as a snack and then chopped vegetables. I have noticed that Vietnamese people like to snack on peanuts a lot. People in general like to snack on peanuts, but I had a close call recently at a nail salon. While my pedicure was drying the Vietnamese lady left the room and when she returned she was crunching something. She went to put lotion on my leg, and as soon as she touched me, I literally jumped out of my chair (didn’t ruin my pedicure) and said, “Nooooooo!!!!!” She had been eating peanuts. She had peanut crumbs on her hands. Rinsed the itchy places on my leg where she had touched, took a benadryl and I was fine. I did not experience anaphylaxis and I actually had direct skin contact with the protein. I am a very lucky human being. But seriously, peanuts are a popular snack food with a lot of people.
Observations and Data: I walked in to the restaurant, sat down, and ordered my food. I told the waiter about my peanut allergy. He said the kitchen has no peanuts. I told him that it was a deadly allergy. He did not seem too concerned. Usually at this point, I ask to talk to the cook, manager, and explain the cross contamination danger. Today I didn’t. That part was stupid of me. I should have done this. If I had done this, my experiment would have been less effective.
I purposely did not take all the normal precautions in order to mindfully collect data and observe the thoughts of my mind and sensations of my body in a potentially deadly situation. I have a meditation practice. I know what to do when anaphylaxis occurs. Do not try this at home. I wanted to see how alike panic and anaphylactic shock actually were.
I am an idiot. In this experiment I went against what doctors advise their patients to do if they suspect a reaction. If a person thinks they are having a severe allergic reaction they are supposed to use the epipen right away.
The medical guidelines for anaphylaxis are immediate administration of the epipen if a person experiences hives and feelings of their throat closing up. If my doctor reads this I will get a real talking to. In this experiment I would cautiously suspend my freak out and subsequent epipen administration until my body displayed undeniable objective proof of an anaphylactic allergic reaction.
Sensations I experienced would be just that, sensations. I would let them happen and write down my experiences without judgement. I would not label the sensations as ‘anaphylaxis’ until I had objective proof. I would consider a physical blockage in my throat/mouth/palate, vomiting, cramps/diarreah, hives all over the body, and asthma/stridor (wheezing) undeniable proof and use the epipen. My body would need to convince my mind with objective physical symptoms, not my mind getting all freaked out, catastrophizing and using the epipen.
The vegetable pho arrived and I started eating. I was really present when I first started eating. The food tasted great I noticed all the complex flavors in the broth. Reality was very real. I looked at the sunny day outside, I looked at the fishtank. Not a thought in my head. Pure presence. The danger created a heightened sense of the present moment.
Worry and panic started to attack when I noticed my throat felt funny and scratchy. Panic in my body started to rise. Then the panic subsided. I developed a hive on my lower lip. I looked at my lip in the mirror. I got a little concerned. Probably just from the salt and spice. My concern subsided.
I had a mucous cough. I felt slight alarm. The alarm subsides. I felt itchy on my face and scalp. I got worried. I remembered that I am always itchy. Worry subsided. My throat did feel funny! Was it closing up? My last episode of real anaphylaxis where my throat did close up had a very specific feeling like I had something lodged in it. I drank some cool water. Water went down fine. No blockages there! This was all in my mind!
At any of these points, I could have overreacted, assumed anaphylactic shock was going on, used my epipen and gone to the ER. The ER would have observed me for 6-12 hours and validated my panic as anaphylactic shock.
At any point had the hive multiplied into more hives, if my asthma started worsening, if my stomach started cramping, if there was a physically present blockage in my throat when swallowing water, I would have shot myself up with the epipen and called 911. I stayed present to the sensations of my body and I refused to let my fear assume control.
Anaphylactic shock is a totally stupid overreaction that my body does.
My physical body is out of my control.
What I do have control over, is my mind.
I have a conscious choice whether or not I am going to overreact on the minor sensations that feel very similar to anaphylaxis.
People with severe peanut allergies like me who insist that they will go into anaphylactic shock from someone eating and crunching peanuts next to them seem to me to be irrationally overreacting. In my opinion, this is not true anaphylaxis, it is a psychological problem, a panic attack. As a peanut allergic person, I need to trust the good scientific research that tells us me that I am going to be fine. I need to feel the uncomfortable sensations when I am in close proximity to peanuts and consciously choose to be present, mindful, and not feed into my fight or flight response.
It’s probably a good idea to get away from the peanuts. It’s a horrible thing to be around, and if people are eating peanuts, they are probably touching things, and I don’t want to touch those things. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever smelled. Then imagine that smell smelling ‘itchy,’ ‘hot,’ and ‘nutty-pungent.’ To me, peanuts smell worse than death. It’s maccabre.
Imagine having a loaded gun sitting on the table next to you. That’s how I feel when people eat peanuts at the next table over.
So please understand if I ask you politely to refrain from crunching on peanuts when I am around. I can’t function as a human very well around lethal danger. I’m not trying to control people, I’m just asking you to be a little considerate. It’s impossible to be a happy healthy person when I am smelling that awful smell.
Just because my body overreacts to peanuts in close proximity doesn’t mean my mind has to.
Living with peanut allergy, I’ve become very familiar with the exact signs of anaphylactic shock, and I refuse to let fear hijack my brain into believing I am in danger when I am not. And if anyone believes that they are having an anaphylactic reaction, use the epipen. It won’t cause any harm if you are not having an acutal reaction.
Ultimately, I can’t control other people. And normal people get hungry and eat peanuts. I can only control myself.