Livin' In a Nutty World: Learning to Manage the Anxiety that Comes with Food Allergies

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I had my professional life all mapped out. My passion is working with children and families on issues related to mental health and behaviors. I spent years becoming qualified, certified, and bona fide. 

Then Life, as she often does, threw me a curveball.  

My oldest son ended up having an allergy to peanuts. So, I learned to navigate the world of food allergies. And then, for good measure, my youngest son developed a dairy allergy.  So, I learned to navigate the world of multiple but different food allergies!  

Along with learning to manage diets and safety issues, I’ve learned to handle the accompanying anxiety.  Here, I offer some suggestions based on my experience. 

Before I had kids, food allergies weren’t even on my radar. I worked in schools, so I would see the nut free signs outside of some of the classrooms.  In one school, there was a nut free table. That was the extent of it. I never considered the snack I ate in my car before entering the classroom, or the possibility for cross contact in the treats I brought in for Christmas. 
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Fast forward to the fourth time my one year old had peanut butter. He developed one small hive by his mouth.  Then almost two hours later, his eyes got swollen and itchy, his ears got red, and then the redness slowly creeped around his neck.  I still didn’t completely flip out, because I didn’t understand the full weight of what was happening. 

I called the pediatrician and gave Benadryl as instructed. I took him in for skin testing, and his reaction confirmed an allergy to peanuts. But the doctor down played it. I got a prescription for epis and some vague instructions to avoid peanut products. 

I left the hospital in somewhat of a fog. What did this mean for my son? How would this affect my family? So I did what I do best: Research and Panic. I googled peanut allergies. I joined some Facebook groups. I found out how serious food allergies can be. 

You guys. I flipped the eff out. 

I found pictures of beautiful children who died from eating the wrong thing. I read comments from non-allergy parents who think it’s ok to send peanut treats to school despite the peanut-free rules. I learned about how labeling laws work (and don’t work).  

But, I have found some sense of equilibrium.  And a new allergist.

So when my second son started getting hives immediately after having dairy, I knew the seriousness of it.  We drove to the ER, Epi pen in hand. Skin testing confirmed an allergy to dairy.

I didn’t spiral downward as before.  I researched, but I didn’t panic. 

Food Allergy Anxiety and I are old friends now.  In fact, I think of him as a person….who happens to look a lot like that green Mucinex guy.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, Food Allergy Anxiety helps keep my boys safe. He keeps me vigilant at parties, if we feel safe enough to go. He gives me the courage to speak up to friends and relatives, and sometimes strangers, who don’t get it.  He reminds me to always always have epi pens with us, and he will encourage me to use them without hesitation if needed. 

Everyone deals with a diagnosis of food allergies in their own way, but the one pretty typical response is to experience high levels of anxiety.  Here are a few suggestions of how to deal with this anxiety:

Educate Yourself
Some people prefer a head-in-the-sand approach, and some people prefer a stay-up-all-night-googling-on-their-phones approach.  For me, knowledge is power. I wanted to know the details of how children have died from food allergies, so I would know the biggest risk factors. I also wanted to know the statistics.  This helped me put the risk in perspective. 

My suggestion is to do some research and educate yourself on the most dangerous situations and avoid those. Then weigh the other risks with the need to still live your lives.  I asked my doctor about some scenarios, and his response was that there are a million possibilities but the risk is so low, it’s not worth talking about.  

Yes, there are parents who have their children wear gloves to protect them from surfaces in public, and yes, there are parents who forget to take epis with them and shrug off the risks.  Your job is to educate yourself and find your own comfort zone.  But don’t let anxiety rule your life. 

Mindfulness Practices
Rather than try to push the anxiety out of your mind, or let yourself get caught up in it, try acknowledging it and let it go. This is what works for me: 

“Hello Anxiety. I see you there, and I thank you for helping me keep my boys safe. I have done everything I can to protect them, and I am going to enjoy this moment now.”

When you notice symptoms of anxiety starting, be aware of them for what they are, calmly acknowledge them, and let them go. 

Empower Yourself and Your Child
As a caregiver, your job is to take care of your children.  All of parenting is pretty much doing everything you can to keep your child safe, and then having some faith.  

You are perfectly equipped to do that.  

Do everything you can to make sure an environment is safe, then know what to do in an emergency.  Ask questions, speak up, be heard, make demands, carry wet-wipes.  

You’ve got this.  You really do.

Teach your child to feel empowered, too.  Have your child ask to see labels and turn down food that may not be safe.  Teach your child to carry epis at all times and feel confident to use them if necessary. 

I encourage you as a caregiver to be mindful of how your mood may affect your child.  If you are calm and confident, your child likely will be, too. If you are anxious and fearful, your child will pick up on this as well. 

The reality is, life is full of risks.  We are fragile, our children are fragile. Food allergies are just one more risk that some of us deal with on a personal level. It is possible to do everything you can to keep your babies safe and enjoy life.  

If you or your child are struggling with managing high levels of anxiety, I invite you to  email me today to schedule a consultation to determine if counseling would be helpful to you and your family.  The anxiety is unavoidable, but that doesn't mean that it can't be managed. 

***Disclaimer: This post is not intended to provide medical advice. Please seek consultation from a board certified allergist for any questions or concerns you may have.