Anxiety and Food Allergies: What We Know and What Can Help.

Sophie Beugnot, PhD, Psychologist.

Living with food allergies is undoubtedly a challenging experience, requiring constant vigilance to avoid allergens and to minimize the risk of accidental exposure. Going on a trip, to a restaurant or visiting friends and family takes on a new significance and must be planned and sometimes avoided.

The initial diagnosis of a food allergy often triggers fear and concern in the form of catastrophic scenarios related to a severe allergic reaction. It is important to understand the impact of food allergies on lifestyle habits and to make the necessary adjustments to ensure the child’s safety. Anxiety levels tend to decrease once good strategies have been integrated into the family routine and an epinephrine auto-injector has been subscribed. Usually, the catastrophic scenarios once imagined gradually give way to a more moderate level of anxiety.

However, anxiety may reappear during new developmental stages or when a change in routine occurs (changing jobs or schools, travel, summer camp, etc.). Parents and children must then adapt to this unfamiliar environment by educating those around them and asking for their cooperation in order to reduce the risk of accidental exposure.

Several factors may increase the level of anxiety related to food allergy: for example, having to manage several different allergies for the same person or for several members of the same family, or caring for young allergic children or teenagers. Studies have shown that mothers of allergic children are reported to be more anxious than their fathers since mothers are often more involved in food management.

It also appears that allergic children are aware of the risks and sometimes develop anxiety over managing their food allergies. This could impact their social and physical activities, which may already be restrained by their dietary restrictions. A minority of allergic children may develop more serious anxiety disorders requiring professional help. However, the majority of children will appropriately adjust to their situation, despite the frustration or sadness sometimes felt.

What are the signs of excessive anxiety?

A certain level of anxiety is useful. The allergic person becomes more alert and compliant with dietary restrictions, which is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction. However, if excessive, anxiety causes significant distress and leads to excessive or disproportionate restrictions, for example, complete avoidance of social situations (children’s parties) or important activities (missing school days) for fear of exposure to an allergen. On the other hand, parents and children who cope well with their anxiety are vigilant and use various strategies to ensure their safety and their compliance with dietary restrictions during these types of situations and activities.

Dealing with anxiety is about finding the right balance between vigilance and the need for control on the one hand, and tolerating the uncertainty or helplessness associated with food allergy on the other.

Strategies to increase your sense of control:

  • Educate yourself so you fully understand the basics of preventing accidental exposure and the necessary actions to take in the event of an allergic reaction.
  • Educate others so they understand the risks and the importance of compliance with dietary restrictions.
  • Explain the special needs of your child to those in charge. Don’t worry about bothering them!
  • Have an emergency plan and explain it to those around you to ensure proper management of a possible allergic reaction: how to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction and how an epinephrine auto-injector works are essential elements. Explain the emergency plan to your child, while reassuring them that their caretakers are also aware of it.
  • Empower children with allergies to manage their own dietary restrictions. A child can learn not to share food or tableware with friends and to ask an adult to check the ingredients before eating a particular food.

Strategies on how to cope with feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness:

  • Put the real risks of accidental death into perspective. When risk-minimizing strategies are put in place, the risks of exposure and accidental death are greatly reduced and even unlikely.
  • Seek support. Use available support and information resources to break the feeling of isolation that can contribute to anxiety.
  • Consult a professional if you’re living with excessive and persistent anxiety.