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My Severe Food Allergies Often Feel Overwhelming and Stressful. Is this Normal?

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Updated April 25, 2008

Question: My Severe Food Allergies Often Feel Overwhelming and Stressful. Is this Normal?
Answer:

What you're feeling is normal and common. People with severe food allergies, and especially parents of children with food allergies, often exhibit high levels of stress, even as compared to people with other chronic conditions such as diabetes. This makes a lot of sense: while some chronic conditions are primarily managed by medications or by surgery, the only viable method for managing food allergies at this point in time is avoiding allergens and treating emergencies when they occur. And unlike diets aimed at reducing weight or cholesterol, with an allergen-avoidance diet there's no wiggle room for cheating or mistakes.

There's also pragmatic stress involved with managing food allergies. Eating out or attending parties and social functions can be difficult, depending on the specific allergies. Buying special foods for food allergies may be more expensive, and in some areas these sorts of foods may be difficult to find. And parents of allergic kids have additional pragmatic challenges in creating action plans with schools and daycares, educating caregivers about emergency treatment and about reading labels, and balancing kids' everyday social activities with the need to keep their children safe from allergens.

Dealing with stress is important for optimal overall health. While there has been little research into the connection between food allergies and stress, emotional stress can trigger asthma attacks --- and asthma can raise the risks associated with some severe food allergies, like shellfish and peanut allergies. Managing stress is important for parents of allergic kids and in people who don't have asthma, too, because chronic stress can have negative effects on anyone's psychological and physical health.

So how can you cope with the day-to-day pressures of living with food allergies and reduce your stress level? Here are a few proven methods:

  1. Adopt a stress management program. This need not be expensive or complicated. Some effective (and free) stress relief techniques include deep breathing, taking regular walks, and practicing meditation. Your stress management program might also include discussing your stress with a therapist or counselor, or regular visits to a massage therapist. About.com's Stress Management Guide, Elizabeth Scott, offers several beginner's resources to help you come up with a program that will work for you, including The Stress Reliever Personality Test and How to Develop a Stress Relief Plan that Works. Try them as a starting point.
  2. Tap into resources that are available to you. One excellent resource for people who may be concerned about their overall nutrition or who may be frustrated by their lack of options with their restricted diet is to work with a nutritionist or dietitian. They may be able to suggest foods you've not considered adding to your diet, help you come up with meal plans that work for your family, or check your diet to ensure you're getting optimal nutrition. Your allergist may be able to recommend a nutritionist or dietitian with particular expertise in food allergies, or check with the American Dietetic Association. Ask your allergist for other resources patients have found useful.
  3. Consider joining a support group, whether in your local area or virtual. A 2007 study in Cyberpsychology and Behavior showed that, while online food allergy support groups have their drawbacks, members greatly appreciate the social support. Two ways to find local support groups are by checking with local hospitals for information or by asking your allergist.

  4. Finally, learn all you can about your food allergies and how you can manage them. One 2006 study showed that the food allergy patients with the best overall mental health were those who viewed themselves as basically healthy people with a condition they were in control of; in contrast, people who viewed themselves as ill and demonstrated poor coping strategies scored lower on indexes of psychological distress. While you can't control the way your body responds to food, knowing what to do in an emergency, recognizing how your allergens may appear on food labels, and educating your child's caregivers to recognize an allergic reaction are among the tangible steps you can take to develop the mindset of control associated with optimal mental health.

Sources:

Coulson, Neil S., and Rebecca C. Knibb. "Coping with Food Allergy: Expanding the Role of the Online Support Group." Cyberpsychology and Behavior. Feb. 2007. 10(1): 145-48.

Knibb, Rebecca, and S.L. Horton. "Can Illness Perceptions and Coping Predict Psychological Distress Amongst Allergy Sufferers?" British Journal of Health Psychology Dec. 30 2006. (EPub).

Teufel, Martin, et al.. "Psychological Burden of Food Allergy." World Journal of Gastroenterology. Jul. 7, 2007. 13(25): 3456-65. 3 Dec. 2007.

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