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, and the allergy-specific therapeutic worksheets.
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! 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.
*This post is one of the 2022 "Pre-Food Allergy Awareness Week" posts. Stay tuned for more this week, including another allergy life skill and an in-depth look at "The 6 Stages of Allergy Parenting" framework.
Follow the FAC on Instagram (@FoodAllergyCounselor), Facebook (www.Facebook.com/FoodAllergyCounselor) and Twitter (@FACounselor) for more valuable information and posts!
Living with allergies means experiencing emotional discomfort, since uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, worry, sadness, anger, and overwhelm can pop up at any time.
But our mind doesn't like discomfort or anything that creates it, such as unpredictability, uncertainty, anything that isn't very clear cut, and sensations that mimic allergic reactions. It feels icky, hard and sometimes even impossible to get through these discomforts. And since our mind wants predictability and certainty to help it feel calmer and safer, it encourages us to make choices that lead us towards that calm - which typically means our mind pushes us to avoid the situation that created the uncomfortable feelings.
While it may seem easier (and safer) to always avoid situations that make us feel this way, if we do, then we limit our ability to develop confidence while living with allergies.
So then, this next statement may stir up those uncomfortable feelings for you:
UNFORTUNATELY, WE HAVE TO STEP OUTSIDE OF OUR COMFORT ZONE TO GROW OUR ALLERGY CONFIDENCE.
Simply put, if we avoid every opportunity to practice allergy management skills because it's outside of our comfort zone, then it limits our ability to expand that comfort zone and eventually learn how to live confidently with allergies.
Sure, you still have the choice to avoid uncomfortable scenarios, BUT, if that is the main tool you use to get through the discomfort, then you're limiting your ability to live a fully engaged life even WITH allergies.
So then, how do we learn to step outside of our comfort zone when so many situations feel so unsafe when managing allergies?
We need to identify strategies and tool that help us work through the uncomfortable feelings and sensations we experience in order to get to the other side - confidently living with our allergy. (Stay tuned for another skill coming this week to help when we do decide to step outside of this comfort zone).
The list of strategies and tools that will help us work THROUGH the discomfort (rather than letting it STOP us) may include:
And here's a NEW tool to put in your toolkit!
The G-R-O-W Technique is a mindfulness-based skill to help you notice the discomfort, understand it, and move forward even with it being there. (It can be adapted and taught to kids, too!)
G: GIVE the feeling or sensation a name. You can simply name the emotion, or get more creative, giving it an actual name like "Mr. Worry". This allows you some distance between you and the feeling and/or sensation. This is what helps us pause so we can CHOOSE our actions and don't have to automatically do what the feeling or sensations says you should do.
R: REVIEW why the feeling or sensation might be there. Get really curious - what does this feeling want you to know? Are you trying something new? Do you need more information on a topic? Are you doing something important, but scary? We typically jump to assumptions and worst-case-scenarios conclusions. We may assume something is too risky based on our feeling, so it’s important to identify other reasons something may feel uncomfortable to do.
O: OBSERVE how it feels in your mind and body. Get to know how your mind and body reacts to this feeling or sensation. Does your stomach feel upset? Is your mind racing? Become familiar with how it feels when this emotion is present so you can tell the difference between anxiety and reaction sensations, and how it feels when you're doing something new versus doing something unsafe.
W: WAYS to move forward with discomfort. This means mapping out workable solutions. What do you need to help you try this new situation or move forward rather than automatically avoid it?
I'll leave you with this last piece of encouragement:
Make the commitment to yourself that learning how to grow through discomfort and get off the allergy anxiety/overwhelm autopilot mode is important enough for you to do, even when it feels incredibly hard to. Sometimes that all you need to do to get yourself on that journey, and it's a great place to start!
Yes, it takes time and practice, but you WILL learn how strong you are...even if you don't always feel that strength.
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