Written by Paige Freeman, PhD., a FAC Directory-listed therapy provider,
See more information about Paige and her practice at the end of this article.
Allergy moms: I have some not so great news. No matter how hard you try, how diligent you are, or how many plans you have- at some point your child will likely be exposed to their allergen. You are not going to navigate this journey perfectly, no matter how many precautions you put in place. And for many of us, even if we were to get it perfect we would still beat ourselves up. (For a deeper dive on this, read my friend Heather Hewett’s Allergic Living article here.)
Here are just a few things allergy moms feel bad about:
Do you notice a theme here? So many times in our allergy world, there are no good solutions because there are pros and cons to almost every decision. Adding to this is a lack of consistent messaging about how to manage food allergies and an overload of input from social media on the multitude of different ways families handle their own allergies.
Compassion is defined as being moved by the suffering of others.
Self-compassion is recognizing that your suffering is difficult and acknowledging the pain.
You can’t ignore your pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. If self-compassion is difficult for you, I’d like for you to think for a minute about how you talk to your child about their difficult thoughts and emotions, or about a mistake they have made.
Now imagine talking to your child in the same manner you talk to yourself about those same thoughts and emotions and missteps. As you picture talking to your child the way you talk to yourself, ask yourself some questions:
Notice, Name and Normalize
Get curious about what your mind is telling you. Observe the thoughts, emotions, memories, etc. that are coming up. It is helpful to complete the sentence, “I notice my mind is telling me…” (Remember that you are observing your thoughts, not judging them).
Also notice what is going on in your body. Does your chest feel full? Do you have a lump in your throat? Are your shoulders tight? Butterflies in your stomach?
Put a name to what is happening. Maybe emotions of shame, guilt, anger, vulnerability, or self doubt are showing up. Maybe it is a feeling of deep tiredness. Maybe it is a memory of helplessness. Maybe the only thing you are experiencing is pain in your lower back.
Whatever it is, after you notice what is happening in your mind and body, then name it. For example, “I am noticing my chest feels heavy”, “I am noticing deep shame”, or “I am noticing regret”.
And then acknowledge the difficulty of it. Acknowledge that it is painful. Naming this can be as simple as, “This is difficult” or “This is exhausting”.
When we are in the midst of suffering, it is helpful to remember that suffering is a part of the human condition. Our highly evolved brains are hard-wired for suffering, and the more we try to avoid experiencing discomfort, the more it sticks around.
Although our specific circumstances are not always the same, humans have the shared struggle of deeply painful experiences. In the food allergy space, there are many moms out there feeling very similarly to you. And it is very difficult.
So when normalizing you may say to yourself, “This is painful and hard, and difficult emotions are a universal human experience” or “Humans are hard-wired to suffer sometimes. It is normal”
Remember that this food allergy journey is very challenging, and painful emotions including guilt are common. Please be kind to yourself. You are navigating something that is very difficult, and some self-compassion can go a long way towards healing and living a purposeful life.
Looking for more on this and related topics? Check out:
Remember, support is out there if you need it!
----> And don't forget to sign up to receive helpful allergy psychosocial tips and updates via email! Subscribers also get the free "Allergy Anxiety and Overwhelm Mini Guide"
Understanding Allergy Parent Guilt
When we receive our child's allergy or medical diagnosis, we typically experience a variety of emotions - usually some that are pretty intense. It's while we are in that hurricane of emotions that our mind tries to become the anchor, looking for ways to make sense of this new diagnosis that we never wanted in the first place.
So when our child receives their allergy or medical diagnosis, we want to know WHY. “How did this food allergy or health condition develop? What caused it? How can I avoid more allergies or health complications from developing and keep my child safe at all times?”
But sometimes, the answer to why the allergy or medical condition developed is that there is no specific cause. Given that our mind wants actual answers, it often struggles to deal with that explanation. Therefore, this lack of clarity definitely doesn't make our mind feel safe because it leaves us with EVEN MORE uncertainty and unpredictability.
In the face of that ongoing uncertainty, parents tend to keep searching for answers. Our mind tells us that there just has to be some stone left unturned that explains WHY our child developed the allergy or medical condition!
It's in this quest to answer that elusive WHY that some parents engage in the “blame game” - blaming themselves for the allergy or health condition. This, of course, only enhances the feelings of guilt.
Since guilt is a behavior-focused emotion, it often leads us to believe that we did something wrong or bad. Therefore, playing the blame game leads us to believe that we must have done something (or NOT done something) that led to this diagnosis. Somehow, it must be our fault, even if there's no evidence to prove it.
Even without evidence to prove that the allergy or medical condition developed because of something we did or didn’t do, this answer somehow provides the certainty parents are looking for. It’s AN answer even if it’s not THE answer.
But then this faulty assumption leads to this unhelpful thought: "If I somehow made the allergy or medical condition develop, then I can prevent another allergy, an allergic reaction, or more complications from occurring by eliminating ALL risks for my child."
And it’s this uncomfortable belief that tends to send parents into an unhelpful pattern of control-seeking and over-avoidance, which leads to ongoing and quality of life-impacting anxiety and overwhelm (because we just can’t control everything!)
While guilt can push us towards unhelpful assumptions and thought patterns in service of finding certainty, predictability and safety, it’s important to notice when this is happening. It’s easy to stay stuck in this unhelpful guilt loop, but it is absolutely possible to experience guilt and not let it push you into the blame game.
Exploring our feelings helps us develop a new perspective and a new relationship with them. Therefore, by getting curious about our guilt, it helps us exit the blame game and the unhelpful loop of regret, and develop an understanding of why else it might be popping up.
Exercise to Try: Get Curious With Your Allergy Parent Guilt
Rather than focusing on finding a cause of the guilt, use these questions below to help you begin to view guilt differently and to redirect it into more mindful and purposeful thoughts and actions:
And if you find that this exercise uncovers elevated anxiety that your guilt feelings have been saving you from, here are some allergy anxiety-focused tools and information that you may find helpful:
All emotions are part of the human experience, even the ones we don't enjoy, such as guilt. Rather than get upset with the emotion and aim to keep yourself from ever feeling it again (because you'll spend tons of energy working toward that unrealistic goal), work towards exploring and understanding its purpose. THEN, you'll be able to find a way to work with or around it rather than being kept captive by it.
And if you're needing more allergy-related psychosocial support, don't forget to check out the Food Allergy Counselor Directory, the Exploring Food Allergy Families podcast, the Food Allergy Behavioral Health Resource section, the allergy-specific therapeutic worksheets, and to sign up for weekly allergy life, mindset and anxiety tips via FAC Corner emails!
We know that in order to gain confidence in our ability to manage our own or our child's allergies, we have to step outside of our comfort zone - because that's where growth happens. But when we finally do step outside and feel anxious, and then have the urge to turn and run, what do we do? It's a catch-22, right?
Well, maybe this new allergy psychosocial tool will help with this process!
A Guide For Practicing Allergy Life Skills:
This Guide for Practicing Allergy Life Skills (when feeling anxious) offers step-by-step guidance through this "out-of-our-comfort-zone" growth process with the goal of not letting the anxiety permanently hold us back. In turn, this helps us focus on EXPANDING OUR COMFORT ZONE so we can add more to it over time.
This guide is a reminder that when we are growing (developing a new skill or a new relationship, or just personal growth), there's discomfort, which may come in the form of anxiety, fear and overwhelm. Yes, allergic conditions do intensify things because of their life-impacting and even life-threatening nature, but at the core, we're still just building important life skills like we do in other areas of our lives. And remember, we don't need to take major leaps outside of our comfort zones (unless you feel ready to) - start small and build over time.
It's also important to note that you don't have to move through this guide in the order it's shown. Just like when we process grief, we can jump from stage to stage. So if you notice the anxiety before you begin practicing the new allergy life skill, then start there and work through the steps until you can try practicing the skill.
And it's equally important to remind yourself that it's okay if it takes you lots of practice to learn this new allergy life skill, or you can't even get through the whole process initially. The goal is growth, and growth takes time and practice!
Let's use the following scenario to show how this guide would be helpful:
You want to start eating out at restaurants more, but are nervous about speaking up and advocating for yourself. It makes you so anxious!
Always start by clarifying what the allergy life skill is you're trying to develop and the benefit of practicing it:
1. Practice what you'd like to tell the waiter or manager, and what you plan to ask them. Try saying/asking in different ways if you need to. Show them your allergy card.
2. Notice the anxious thoughts and feelings in your mind and body. Remind yourself that you're doing something new, but there's a big benefit to getting through this discomfort. Don't overly engage with them, but instead, work with them. Edit them from "What if" thoughts to "If, then" thoughts.
3. Explore the emotional and physical anxiety and discomfort. Maybe there's another question you need to ask or more information you want to share with the restaurant staff to help you safer and feel better about speaking up. You may also need to take a moment to physically relax yourself.
4. Use calming tools, such as deep breathing or focusing on something you can see or hear, if you notice your mind or body getting really anxious or uncomfortable.
5. Try the skill again - either at that time and/or in the future. Ask more questions during this experience, or note what you'd like to do differently next time.
After you've practiced, debrief about the experience with questions such as:
Again, in these kinds of uncomfortable situations, our focus needs to be working towards EXPANDING OUR COMFORT ZONE over time so that we can add more to it over time. Even if we aren't good at the skill the first few times we try it, or can't get through the whole process - that's okay! The goal is just to try and make movement towards adding more into our comfort zone.
Just like the image below, which represents what we THINK happens over time with grief - versus what ACTUALLY happens - our goal when managing allergies is to expand our comfort zone around the discomfort. Therefore, keeping this in mind with each step we take can help us talk back to our anxiety and stay the course!
So, give this tool a go the next time you want to try a new experience that feels overwhelming. Use it as a visual reminder that you DO have the ability to get yourself through the discomfort and expand your comfort zone, even if it feels hard to! I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this new psychosocial tool!
Looking for more tools and insights to help you move through the discomfort and fear of reactions in new, unfamiliar situations? Check these resources out:
Remember, support is out there if you need it! Don't forget to check out the Food Allergy Counselor Directory, the Exploring Food Allergy Families podcast, the Food Allergy Behavioral Health Resource section, and the allergy-specific therapeutic worksheets. And if you're an allergy-informed therapy provider, then visit the Provider page!
----> And don't forget to sign up to receive helpful allergy psychosocial tips and updates via email! Subscribers also get the free "Allergy Anxiety and Overwhelm Mini Guide".
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