Everyone is sensitive to physical and emotional toxins at some level. Some people start out nearly impervious, while others are sensitive to microscopic amounts.
When body and spirit are subjected to repeated or extreme trauma, we lose the ability to absorb further insults. The nervous system becomes reactive to smaller amounts of toxins, and interprets some non-toxic substances as threats. Most intolerances are not technically allergies, since they are not a histamine response, but the body is similarly trying to protect itself. Emotional and physical triggers vary from person to person.
Abusive environments teach us to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. The more we blend in with the background, the less we attract toxic attention. Yielding and adapting help us survive.
Sensitivities and intolerances challenge us to learn new skills. Faced with days or weeks of misery after each exposure, we begin to assert our body’s needs rather than go along with the crowd. Gluten intolerance requires us to pre-screen restaurants and carefully quiz the server about ingredients. Chemical sensitivity requires us to request fragrance-free announcements in advance and leave events abruptly when fragrances are present.
New skills take both planning and practice. It’s hard to think creatively in the grip of an adverse reaction. Symptoms often include anxiety, confusion, and fogged thinking, making it difficult to take steps to protect yourself.
- Establish a safe home base. Minimize triggers as best you can. Think about one step you can take to make your home base a little safer for you.
- Follow routines for being away from home base. What can you bring with you to improve your experience? For example, I bring my own food to many events.
- Contact new people and places ahead of time to explain your needs. Tell allies how they can help.
- List specific symptoms during and after exposure. For example, with exposure to chemicals I get disoriented and can no longer tell right from left, have trouble remembering names, and get suddenly tired. Later I get joint pain and headaches.
- Make an escape plan in case your sensitivities get triggered.
During an event:
You decided to attend an event and did what you could to minimize the risks. Now is your chance to relax and enjoy it.
If you notice specific symptoms from your list:
- Validate for yourself that you are having a reaction.
- Reach out to allies if they are available.
- Monitor your symptoms. You might decide to stay because you enjoy the event, or your attendance is required, or you lack the energy to set a boundary in that moment. Those are all valid reasons not to leave immediately.
- Follow your escape plan when symptoms outweigh your reasons to stay.
After a reaction:
- Return to your home base.
- Give yourself time to rest and recover.
- Remind yourself that your body is processing a toxic reaction and the symptoms will pass, although it may take several days or longer.
- Practice self-care. Take hot baths, drink extra water, or whatever you have noticed mitigates symptoms for you. Keep a list of actions you can take.
- Look back with compassion. Navigating boundaries and sensitivities is challenging.
- Notice incremental improvements. Did you see your symptoms with more kindness? Reach out to an ally sooner? Make a conscious decision to stay and pay the price later? Get yourself out of the situation even though it took longer than you wanted?
- What made this situation difficult and got in the way of self-care? Modify your symptom list and escape plan to take new information into account.
Advocating for yourself takes extra energy you might not always have. Do you know other people with sensitivities who can share some of the work and validate your experience? Do you know sympathetic people who are not affected by the same triggers and can help you recognize symptoms and manage a reaction?
Sometimes people react in unhelpful ways to people with sensitivities. Instead of responding with compassion, they become defensive and focus on themselves. In particular, many fragranced products are marketed to cover body shame, leading people to feel attacked when asked to put them aside. We all have moments when defensiveness wins over compassion.
Some possible responses to unhelpful comments:
- “I don’t smell anything.” Acknowledge the comment as a simple statement about their senses. It has no bearing on the fact that you are having a reaction and need to leave. Do not allow them to gaslight you about what you sense in your environment and in your body.
- “Smell me! Is it me?” Redirect the person to an ally, or simply refuse. Taking deep breaths of possibly-scented air is the last thing you want to do.
- “I’m grateful I don’t have your problems.” This is rude. You can tell them that, firmly change the subject, or wait for them to wind down, depending on the situation and your energy level.
- “It’s all in your head.” This is even more rude, and might be phrased more subtly. A possible response is, “Respecting my limits works better for me than ignoring them.”
- “You need to get that fixed.” Your medical decisions are your private domain. Sensitivities are not well understood, and it can be hard to find gentle treatment that helps rather than further irritates your nervous system.
- Lack of respect for boundaries. This might manifest as wearing fragrances, carelessness with gluten contamination, or otherwise exposing you to a trigger. In the moment, focus on self-care. In the future, avoid being vulnerable to that person or institution.
Grateful for boundaries
Recently a couple of people admired my boundaries when I left an event because of fragrances. I am grateful to my sensitivities for forcing me to prioritize self-care over appeasing others. Sometimes I also feel angry about the limitations imposed by our culture’s toxic habits.
Take some time to notice all your complex emotions about being more sensitive than people around you. Are there any changes you want to make in how you handle that? Some triggers probably affect you less than they affect others around you. Are there any changes you want to make in how you handle that?
Dave Hingsburger blogs about disability and accommodation as part of normal life. He reminds us, “You’ve got to be careful not to become grateful for what should simply be expected.“