by Emma Amoscato

Emma Amoscato is a blogger, author and mum to children with food allergies. Here she shares her tips on managing anxiety when your child has a food allergy.

Losing a child is every parent’s biggest fear, so it is no wonder a life-threatening food allergy diagnosis can feel so terrifying. Parents of children with a food allergy report higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression [1] but there are ways to navigate your worries so they don’t start negatively impacting your and your child’s lives.

A certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial and our primitive brains are always looking out for danger to try and keep us safe. When we perceive a threat, we switch into flight or fight mode, our heart beats faster and we release adrenaline to get ready to run. Once we have escaped, our hormone levels go back to normal and our body calms down. However, when that threat feels ever-present our brain keeps scanning for solutions and is on constant alert. This hypervigilance can be exhausting and keep us constantly on edge.

Let’s start by looking at some facts. The chance of your child dying from an anaphylactic reaction is very slim. Only 20 people a year in the UK lose their lives to allergies, and researchers have calculated the chances of dying to be 1.81 in a million.  For children and young people aged 0-19 the risk is 3.25 in a million.[2]  This is less likely than being killed in an unexpected accident [3].

Although hospitalisations for anaphylactic food allergic reactions have increased by 500% since 1990 [4], deaths have not. So this gives us another reassurance – adrenaline injectors and hospital treatment work.  Sometimes we hear about the tragic outcomes, and of course, these are heart-breaking, but we don’t focus on the thousands of times it was all OK. Here are some steps you can take to manage the emotional toll of living with allergies and help put the risks and realities into perspective.

Give yourself time to grieve

There is a grieving process that goes with an allergy diagnosis as you mourn the life you were hoping for and the spontaneity that you may be losing. There is often also a lot of guilt, anger and trauma to process, especially if you have watched your child have an anaphylactic reaction. Give yourself time to process these emotions and work on accepting the situation so you can make your lives the best they can be.

Limit your news intake

It’s important to be informed and to connect with other people living with allergies; however, constantly seeking out information and other people’s experiences can overwhelm your threat system. Pick a few trusted sources to learn from and limit the amount of Facebook forums or support groups you are part of. Remove yourself from any that are negative, sensationalist or increase your anxiety.

Live in the here and now

Ruminating about past events or worrying about the future can get us stuck in an unhelpful cycle of ‘what ifs’. We don’t have all the answers and tend to catastrophise, always reaching for the worst conclusion. Try to bring yourself back to the present, recognise your thought patterns and remind yourself that you and your child are safe right now. Move your attention to something mindful like playing a game with your child or going for a walk, and try logging daily gratitude to encourage your brain to focus on the positives.

Spheres of control

Unfortunately, we cannot control every aspect of our child’s life, especially as they grow older, nor can we predict when an allergic reaction will happen. Living with this level of uncertainty can be draining and you may overcompensate by trying to micromanage every small detail. Planning and preparation are important but you need to focus on the things you can control and know that it is enough.  Some things to focus on are:

·  Having a clear care plan, shared with family and caregivers

·  Always reading ingredients and communicating your child’s needs

·  Training yourself and others to use adrenaline injectors

·  Always carrying medication

·  Educating your child about their allergies

·  Take small steps

Normal activities like eating out or going on holiday can feel like climbing a mountain when you are managing food allergies. However, all these things are possible. Take small steps towards your goal by breaking it down. This might involve finding recommendations for allergy friendly restaurants, researching them online, having a conversation with the manager, finding one simple safe dish, going at an off-peak time and taking a chef card to double check everything.

What’s normal?

It is natural to feel anxious sometimes about caring for your child with food allergies. This can be particularly heightened in new situations, such as starting school, or soon after an allergic reaction. Give yourself time, focus on what you’ve learnt and remind yourself of everything you have in place to keep your child safe.  Planning, preparing and double-checking labels are all adaptive behaviour.  Frequently avoiding places or situations because of food allergies will only make your anxiety worse. If these feelings start to become overwhelming or limit your life, it is important to recognise when to seek help.

Written by Emma Amoscato, February 2021

Reviewed by:
Dr Neeta Patel, Paediatric Consultant with an interest in allergy
Dr Karen Murphy, Clinical Psychologist

References

[1] Birdi, Cooke and Knibb 2016
[2] Incidence of fatal food anaphylaxis in people with food allergy: a systematic review and meta‐analysis, Incidence of fatal food anaphylaxis in people with food allergy: a systematic review and meta‐analysis – Umasunthar – 2013 – Clinical & Experimental Allergy – Wiley Online Library. Link
[3] Macdougall, Cant, Colver 2001
[4] Gupta 2007

Quality of Life, Stress, and Mental Health in Parents of Children with Parentally Diagnosed Food Allergy Compared to Medically Diagnosed and Healthy Controls. Link

How dangerous is food allergy in childhood? The incidence of severe and fatal allergic reactions across the UK and Ireland. Link

Time trends in allergic disorders in the UK. Link

Disclaimer: All information provided by The Allergy Team Ltd is general information only. Please contact your GP or other qualified healthcare professional for specific advice.