When Allergies Make You: Afraid of Food
If a serious allergic reaction has left you too frightened to eat even ‘safe’ foods, there is help and you are not alone. (From the Allergic Living archives, first published in the magazine in 2007.)
IT WASN’T until Sandra Schwartz was on a camping trip in Northern Ontario in August 2005 that she felt the full force of the fear. Just a couple of days earlier, the 36-year-old Ottawa resident had been lying in an emergency room, experiencing her second-ever reaction to shellfish after eating a plate of shrimp.
Unlike the minor reaction she’d had a year before, when she turned red and her face swelled, this one was full-blown anaphylaxis: Schwartz’s entire body turned crimson red and covered in hives, her heart raced as she grew lightheaded and dizzy, and her face swelled beyond recognition. But the food didn’t just set off a dramatic physical response, it also triggered a psychological tidal wave.
“They always talk about that feeling of impending doom, and I had it times 10,” says Schwartz. “The doctors were saying I was OK, but I said, ‘I feel like I’m going to die. Please don’t let me die.’ ”
Though she had yet to realize it, that was the night Schwartz’s fear of food began. The next day, thinking she was well enough to travel, Schwartz left on a planned camping trip with her boyfriend.
As they drove along the increasingly remote highways, the “what ifs” began to creep like tendrils into her psyche: What if I react again? What if medical help can’t get to me on time?
And, because Schwartz had been diagnosed with a shellfish allergy a year earlier, but didn’t understand that she was supposed to avoid it altogether, she had continued to eat shellfish. In fact, only a month before, she had eaten a plate of shrimp without incident.
As a result, she didn’t fully believe that it could have triggered such a massive reaction. That raised another terrifying question: If it wasn’t the shrimp, what was it? Maybe it was fruit. Or wheat. Or something else. Suddenly, every food was suspect, and Schwartz became terrified to eat.
A couple of days later, her panic peaked. “We were in the middle of nowhere, I was chewing a piece of gum, and I started not being able to breathe.” Schwartz thought it was another reaction, so her boyfriend drove full tilt to the next town. Once in the hospital parking lot, Schwartz realized it wasn’t a reaction that she had experienced. It was a major panic attack.
“I just sat crying in the car. That’s when we realized that there’s a real psychological element to this.”
The couple cut the trip short. Still, Schwartz only felt safe eating cereal and pasta. She saw an allergist and got retested (once again, shellfish was the allergen), and tentatively added a few more foods to her diet, but the fear persisted.
By the time she got married three months after that camping trip, Schwartz joked to friends that allergies were the best pre-wedding weight loss plan around. Feeling like every bite was potentially lethal, she had lost over 20 pounds.
Lauren Alexander came to know that same fear. The 24-year-old was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to tree nuts as a baby, and other than the occasional reaction, she had been leading a normal life. Then in the spring of 2006, a reaction to some nut-laced salad dressing at a restaurant plunged her into a world where she felt surrounded by foods that could kill her. Alexander, who lives in Washington State, dropped 20 pounds in two months.
She even began taking Benadryl before eating – just in case. “This huge swell of paranoia came over me,” she explains. “It was like nothing I had ever experienced.”
Dr. Scott Sicherer says cases of food fear such as Schwartz’s and Alexander’s are not at all unusual. Sicherer is an allergist, associate professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Understanding and Managing Your Child’s Food Allergies. Nearly every day at his New York office, he sees food allergy patients who express varying degrees of anxiety.
Some become afraid to eat, in rare cases to the point of anorexia; others become panicky when they feel the slightest allergic symptom; some severely restrict the foods in their diets; and others withdraw themselves or their allergic children from society in an attempt to prevent reactions.
Such responses may appear to be irrational, but Sicherer uses an analogy to make sense of them. “If I stood next to you, pulled out a gun and held it at your head,” he says, “you’re going to shake, you’re going to sweat, and you’re going to fear for your life, because you know that gun could hurt you. So if you’ve been hurt by food, that type of fear can become a huge part of your existence.”
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. 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.
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. Her son 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 Aaron, “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.
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