What’s the therapy for emotional allergies?
I’m not thrilled to add even more medical language to the lexicon of diagnoses flooding psychotherapy, but I’ve come to find a useful analog in a medical experience many of us are familiar with that lends a new understanding to experiences that present themselves in therapy like anxiety and depression.
When I moved to NYC I had a fantasy that living in an urban jungle would mean that the allergies from which I’d long suffered would disappear. Sadly not so. Years later a therapy patient who happened to be an allergist explained to me some of the science behind allergies. As she laid it out, allergies are a sort of evolutionary error. When our bodies are triggered into an allergic response, our immune systems–the set of functions that are designed to protect us from infections–go into action. The problem is (and thus the error) the stimuli that our immune system perceives as a threat isn’t really a threat at all. The very mechanism that is designed to protect us betrays us, causing sniffles, sneezes or worse.
This happens with emotions, too. In a sense, we all have (and need) an emotional immune system. Certain choices (inviting a stranger into our home; having unprotected sex) come with potential for dangerous consequence and we all must rely on a set of systems to protect us. If our emotional immune system is in good working order we might feel distrust (“This guy gives me the heebie jeebies!”) or fear (“I don’t want to get an STD!”) and respond to those feelings with actions that can help keep us safe (run away or strongly assert our needs).
Creating safety for yourself and, in part, for your loved ones is a critical task of living a healthy life. For many, growing up in unsafe conditions means arriving at adulthood not fully skilled in this area. If one spends time growing up around people who are unsafe or in manipulative environments, one’s emotional immune system may not be strong enough to keep one safe without additional help, and there’s a great need to compensate for this and, ultimately, grow stronger.
But there are added consequences as well. A difficulty, on an emotional level, in discerning between safe and unsafe doesn’t just create the risk of letting unsafe people in or making unsafe choices–it also risks the opposite. When an emotional allergy is triggered, something that is safe may feel unsafe. Someone who is offering help or love may seem dangerous. In other words, just as one’s body may misconstrue a particle of pollen as a threat to one’s physical well being, so might a hug be misconstrued as an emotional threat. What flows from that is a sort of emotional Catch-22: I want to be hugged (and need to in order to heal) but the very offering of the hug is terrifying.
As I said, I had a lot of allergies as a kid, and for a while I got allergy shots. The same allergist/ therapy patient phrased their effectiveness as “arcane science that actually works.” The idea is that through exposure to a serum derived from the very plants and animals that cause the allergy, starting with tiny doses gradually increasing with time, our immune systems can sort themselves out, so to speak, by becoming more and more tolerant of the allergen until the dose reaches a significant enough level to match the allergens that would otherwise plague us. I find it sort of elegant: The very thing that harms us, through an error in our immune systems, becomes the cure.
The process of increasing our capacity to manage difficult feelings and experiences follows a similar process but with a distinct difference. Unlike with the allergy shots, there’s one critical advantage when it comes to therapy to treat emotional allergies: The relationship.
Whether it’s in the therapy office or in the context of a loving friendship, a relationship with someone who strives to accept, who is curious, who is a constant companion while we struggle through the pain and adjustments of the hard stuff is critical. Because of this, the very best therapy involves more than a friendly smile from the person giving the shot in the arm. A relationship with a therapist must be more than transactional–more than an incidental part of the process of growth but central to it. In a sense, the therapist herself is the allergen–the emotional input we so badly need but may struggle to tolerate.