IT BECAME part of daily life for Pamela Lee, a Vancouver teaching assistant. Her son, Aaron Schroeder, was a toddler when he had his first major food allergic reaction: after eating a peanut butter cookie, his whole body swelled up and his breathing became labored. He fully recovered, but his mother’s psychological response endured for years.
“We would go to the beach and there seemed to be peanut shells everywhere. They probably always were there, but I had never noticed them. I began to feel like we were walking in a minefield,” Lee says. Soon, she was terrified to feed her son any food he hadn’t eaten before, and told him that if he even touched a peanut he would die.
But while she was desperately afraid, Aaron was wild and fearless – the kind of kid who would use the top of a plastic storage container to sled down the basement steps or test a hot stove with his finger.
Then one day in the first grade, he shared a snack and a serious allergic reaction landed him in the hospital. All of a sudden, Aaron was no longer the daredevil.
“He would ask me over and over and over, ‘Have you checked the ingredients?’” Lee says. He refused food brands he didn’t know, and no longer wanted to go over to friends’ houses.
Even when Lee took a safe cake to a birthday party, he didn’t want to touch it. She would tell her son, “You’ve got to trust me. I wouldn’t endanger you.”
What people like Lee, her son, Schwartz and Alexander have experienced are likely symptoms of post-traumatic stress, says Dr. Gordon Cochrane, a Vancouver psychologist who has written extensively on anxiety-related issues. While that condition is usually associated with soldiers who have returned from war zones or car crash survivors, the trauma caused by a life-threatening allergic reaction can be equally scarring.
In order for us to function in the world, he explains, we need to uphold the belief that we are safe from harm. For example, when we leave home in the morning, we need to believe that we aren’t likely to get shot at or hit by a car; otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. In the same way, when we eat, we need to believe that our food won’t kill us. So when that belief gets badly shaken – as it can with a severe allergic reaction – a floodgate of perceived dangers opens up.
“People think, ‘If this happened, then that might happen, and then that might happen,’ and so on. And with an allergic response, the possibility is there every time they eat,” Cochrane says. “As a consequence, they could easily narrow their intake down to almost survival food.”
If a major reaction rattles that sense of security, fears can expand well beyond food. Suddenly a world of dangerous possibilities opens, and a trip in a car or an elevator ride can turn terrifying. Untreated, such anxieties can have a profound impact on people’s working lives, relationships and sense of well-being. That in turn creates a vicious cycle: being in a state of perpetual anxiety is exhausting, and once a person is exhausted, they are much less capable of overcoming their fears.
Cochrane also notes that when it is parents who are immersed in fear, they tend to look only at the consequences of under-protecting allergic children, not of over-protecting them. Severely restricting a diet can be one form of over-protection.
DR. JANICE Joneja, a B.C. immunologist, dietitian and author of several books (including Dealing With Food Allergies), has seen the consequences in dozens of patients who are so fearful of food that they have reduced their children’s diets, or their own, to almost nothing. At that point, malnutrition can become a greater danger than the allergy itself.
In one case, the mother of an allergic son was so afraid of him dying from a reaction that she had fed him only six or eight foods all of his life. When she brought him to Joneja at the age of 14, he was so poorly nourished that he looked several years younger and wore a hat to hide his thin, brittle hair.
“He had been instructed that, ‘If you eat anything else, you’ll die,’” recalls Joneja. “With children, it can lead to permanent damage if they’ve got a deficiency at a stage where they really need the nutrients,” she says. “So if people take a food out, they need to always add a nutritionally equivalent food in.”
But not all fear is bad. The medical experts say that some level of anxiety is not only an understandable side effect of food allergies; it keeps people vigilant about avoiding dangerous foods. The question becomes: how much fear is too much?
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