Food allergies are stressful. If your child (or you) lives with allergies, this isn’t a surprising statement. You may, however, find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in feeling the stress. One study from the University of Maryland found that 41% of parents reported that their child’s food allergies had a “significant impact on their stress levels.” An earlier study out of the UK found that children with peanut allergies had more anxiety and lower quality of life than their peers who had Type 1 diabetes. Other studies point to the impact of allergy-related stress on marriages and work.
Here’s the good news: you can work to develop a healthier relationship with your (or your loved ones’) food allergies. The following steps will help you toe that fine line between respect and fear.
Perceived Risk vs. Actual Risk
Does the idea of a school without a peanut/tree nut-free policy scare you? Are you afraid to take your allergic child to the movie theater or a birthday party? Are you avoiding family functions out of fear of exposure? It can feel like life with food allergies is loaded with an array of risky places and activities teeming with allergic threats.
A team of researchers led by allergist Chitra Dinakar, MD and ACAAI Fellow, developed the proximity food challenge that helps patients recognize that they can be near food allergens without fear. According to the study’s co-author Jay Portnoy, MD and ACAAI past president, “The majority of [children who participate in a proximity food challenge] have not suffered a reaction. Actually, only one child had a hive appear. Most kids are initially scared, but when they don’t have a reaction, their fears are eased, and they have a new sense of freedom. They have more confidence in being a part of their community.” Your take-away from this: Talk to your allergist about a proximity challenge. It can help you recognize what’s really a risk and what’s not, thereby alleviating a measure of stress and fear.
The Pre-Game Matters
Tiger Woods recently won his fifth Masters tournament. Here’s what he didn’t do: He didn’t wake up at the start of the Masters, dust off his golf clubs, find his golf shoes buried in a pile of long-forgotten odds and ends and hit the links ready for a win. What he did do is prepare. He practiced. He exercised to build strength and endurance. Living in the world with your allergies also takes preparation. Eating out? Do your due diligence before you go. Taking your child to a classmate’s birthday party? Talk to the host parent and ask about the menu so you can go in with a plan. Talk to your allergist and come up with a game plan about how to handle things like trick-or-treating at Halloween, going to school, or going on sleepovers.
Work up to It
As noted above, you and your fears are not alone. In fact, you’ve got quite a bit of company in this. If you’re not ready to cannonball into the world as an allergic family, start by dipping your toe in first. Schedule a playdate with a friend who understands the challenges your child’s allergies present. Make it a meet up at your pal’s place when you can stick around and let the kids play while you chat over a cup of coffee or something. Do that a few times, and then work up the nerve to drop your kid off for an hour without you. You (and your allergic child) can build up to the big stuff.
Carrie Fisher got it right when she said, “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.” Even if your allergist offers a proximity challenge, even if you do all your due diligence, even if you’re armed with your allergy action plan and epinephrine, even if you’ve worked your way up, you may still be scared. Guess what. That’s okay. It’s okay to be afraid as long as you don’t let that fear paralyze you. Take Fisher’s sage advice to heart: Stay afraid but do it anyway.