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“Mind Over Matter” – Anxiety Related to Food Allergy in Children

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What is Food Allergy?

If your child has a food allergy, their immune system misinterprets a certain food as harmful and reacts by triggering an allergic reaction. Almost 500,000 Canadian children under 18 years of age have an allergy to food (Soller et al., 2015). The severity of allergic reactions to food is unpredictable and symptoms may range from itchy skin and hives to anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening reaction that can affect different parts of the body. Food is one of the most common causes of anaphylaxis in children.

According to Health Canada, the “priority food allergens” or most common foods triggering an allergic reaction are egg, milk, peanut, fish, crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp) and molluscs (e.g., scallops, clams), sesame, soy, tree nuts, wheat and triticale (hybrid of wheat and rye), and mustard.

Food allergy currently has no cure, and therefore, it can be thought of as a chronic medical condition that requires long-term management.

How is anxiety related to food allergy?

Some of the physical symptoms of an allergic reaction (e.g., trouble breathing, dizziness, lightheadedness, feelings of panic, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting) can be very similar to what we feel when we are anxious. This similarity can make it difficult for some children to tell the difference between feeling unwell because they are having an allergic reaction to something they have eaten, versus having a non-life-threatening experience of feeling anxious.

Managing a food allergy requires a high degree of awareness and vigilance. Exposure to a food that you are allergic to carries risk and can have significant health consequences. At the same time, eating and drinking are essential activities we must do every day to stay healthy and they can’t be avoided! Some anxiety keeps people on guard and helps them to stay safe; too much anxiety can get in the way of our happiness and ability to function each day.

How do I know when anxiety related to food allergy has become a problem?

Vigilance about exposure to food allergens is very important to keep children safe, therefore, some anxiety is expected. However, when the anxiety begins to interfere significantly with your child’s involvement in age appropriate activities and/or affects their behaviour, it is considered a problem.

For example, the fear of having contact with an allergen may lead some children to make extreme changes in their behaviour to try to avoid this risk altogether. Parents must pay attention to potential changes that may indicate that their child’s anxiety is causing them problems.

What kinds of behaviour’s might mean that professional support is needed for my child?

Parents managing a food allergy often worry a lot about their child’s safety and they may experience heightened stress due to the need for constant planning and vigilance to prevent exposure to allergens. Parents need to educate caregivers at school and other settings about how to keep their child safe (and then trust these adults to put the necessary safety procedures in place).

Here are some changes in behavior’s to be aware of:

  • Refusing to attend school or extreme resistance to get there in the morning
  • Refusing to participate in extracurricular activities (e.g., birthday parties, play dates, attending lessons away from home)
  • Becoming clingier or experiencing distress about being away from caregivers
  • Excessive label reading and/or an excessive amount of questions about whether foods are safe to eat
  • Excessive hand washing
  • Extreme, unnecessary restrictions in eating and drinking
  • Significant changes in mood, sleep, or other behaviour’s

It is important to keep in mind that your child learns from you and models their own behavior after yours, so high levels of parental anxiety and stress can have a negative impact on children. If you find you are spending a lot of time worrying about your child’s food allergy and safety, and it’s impacting your behaviour or ability to function at home or work, you may benefit from meeting with a psychologist specialising in the treatment of adult anxiety.

Maintaining a Balance

Individuals with a food allergy must work to avoid their food triggers while also maintaining a high quality of life. A psychologist can help families achieve balance between following prescribed safety practices (e.g. avoiding the food allergen, having an emergency plan, carrying an epinephrine auto-injector such as an EpiPen® when age appropriate) and continuing to participate in activities that are important to the family.

Members share these tips for staying safe:

  • Create a “cheat sheet” of unsafe foods and post it on the fridge.
  • Mark a dedicated pan that’s 100% allergen free for your use only.
  • Clean all plates and utensils in a dishwasher, not by hand. If eating away from home, re-wash utensils whenever possible.
  • At a banquet, request an allergy-free meal. Then mark your dish or meal ticket with your allergens.

Never stop advocating for yourself or your children, advise members. Make sure your family knows: “You almost killed me, stop doing that,” said one.

Balanced Healing can offer a screening service to determine food allergies/intolerance’s, which includes:

  • Blood Test for IgE’ s indicating intolerance’s/allergies covering 90 or 240 foods,
  • Provide access to an Allergy Specialist at the Allergy Clinic




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