Have you heard of this useful metaphor for overly-engaging with our unhelpful thoughts?
Sometimes our mind gets fixated on certain thoughts, so much so that we can't think about anything else.
Or maybe it's not a specific thought your mind is focused on, but rather, a belief or internal rule you've made for yourself about how things need to happen, or a rigid set of expectations.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we call this concept cognitive fusion. We can become fused with our thoughts, our emotions, a desired outcome - truly, we can become fused with almost anything!
One the other hand, the concept of cognitive defusion is allowing room for our mind to consider more flexible thoughts rather than staying overly-engaged with unhelpful ones.
A common metaphor or visual that ACT practitioners use to explain cognitive fusion is this (and actually give this exercise a try):
Well, in this metaphor, your hands are your thoughts!
Our hands covering our eyes represents being overly-engaged (or fused) with our unhelpful thoughts - typically these are the ones that feel sticky, persistent, and stubborn.
When those are present, we tend to become overly-engaged with them. And that cognitive fusion with these unhelpful thoughts then typically gives way to judging ourselves, increased anxiety, stress, overwhelm, unhelpful actions....you get it.
But by moving our hands away from our eyes, we were able to see more around us again!
And that's the same with our thoughts. We can't delete our thoughts, just like we can't get rid of our hands that were covering our eyes. But we CAN move them or change their positioning, which then gives us a different perspective!
Here's an example:
You find yourself overly-engaged with the thought that you can't go out to eat at restaurants because the kitchen will always make mistakes.....
Looking for other ways to separate from your unhelpful thoughts? This video is another wonderful visual representation of cognitive fusion, offering additional practical strategies to help you defuse from your unhelpful thoughts. (Recommend this video for teens and older).
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[This is one of those articles that may stir up feelings of anxiety. But remember - anxiety isn't the bad guy (even though it makes us feel uncomfortable) - and it can actually push us towards meaningful change. So harness any anxious feelings you may feel as you read this, and focus on exploring why they're there and how the information presented may help you create a more workable approach to anxiety].
Scrolling through allergy social media accounts, you may have come across posts with the following kinds of messages:
Do these messages raise your anxiety levels? Do they flip on the pressure to be perfect? Or make you want to curl up in a ball and hide (so you don't have to deal with the possibilities of making mistakes)?
These are normal emotional responses to those kind of statements.
While messages with these themes mean well - encouraging people to exercise caution and take food allergies seriously - the reality is that they may do more harm than good.
Let's explore (3) reasons why these fear-based messages may not be the best approach to relaying the seriousness of food allergies, particularly within the food allergy community itself.
1. They Can Lead To Excessive Anxiety & Worry
Increased anxiety has already been noted, but let's expand on the potential "allergy anxiety domino effect" that fear-based allergy messaging may give way to.
Excessive anxiety and worry can lead to avoidance of experiences in order to seek safety. Avoidance of experiences can then lead to even more anxiety due to a lack of confidence in one's ability to manage their allergy without avoiding things. This then reinforces the narrative that life with food allergies is too scary to navigate. And, you guessed it - that tends to translate to even more avoidance.
Experiencing some anxiety can actually be useful, often motivating us towards action and change. However, when it becomes excessive, our stress levels rise and our confidence in our ability to manage situations decreases. This is when we tend to feel scared, stuck, and without any control or impact on situations and their outcomes.
Therefore, when messages use extreme language and themes, they're likely overshooting their target, leading readers to feel less empowered and more trapped by allergy fears.
2. They Can Lead To Setting Unrealistic Expectations
Simply put, no one is perfect! That means that mistakes WILL happen. I know that's a scary thought when managing life-threatening food allergies, but it's a thought that is better addressed than avoided. With that said, not every mistake leads to a reaction or anaphylaxis, and that's an important thing to remind yourself.
When messages lead us to believe that every mistake ends in catastrophe, our brain interprets that as a threat - we must keep ourselves and/or our child from having an allergic reaction at all costs (including costs to our own well-being). This then triggers a feeling of panic and fight/flight/freeze response. And understandably, that primes us to seek safety by creating an unrealistic safety bubble for fear of making mistakes.
That's why fear-based messaging does more harm than good. When we're in fight/flight/freeze mode, our focus is safety, not learning to live with food allergies. If we stay in that mode, we will expect ourselves (and others) to be perfect, never making a mistake - telling ourselves that this an achievable goal. And if a reaction does happen, we may then deal with intense guilt that is fed by this unachievable goal.
Yes, our overall goal is to prevent reactions, but it's unhelpful to believe that this is achieved through perfection. It's more useful to accept that there will likely be mistakes - maybe even made by ourselves - and focus on learning how to navigate reactions, should they happen.
3. They Can Lead To Overparenting Behaviors
While parenting a food allergic child does require additional stressors that non-allergy parents don't deal with, it's still possible to overparent an allergic child.
Overparenting is paved with good intentions, but can result in a child experiencing increased anxiety, inadequate life skills, and a lack of resilience. There's data exploring how maternal distress is an identified risk factor for psychosocial difficulties in youth with food allergy, and restrictive parenting practices can lead to poorer health-related quality of life in this population. And even with allergic children, parents' goals are still to work themselves out of a job. This means that allergy parents should focus on helping themselves grow through each stage of an allergic child's development in order to raise a self-sufficient allergic young adult.
Connecting this with the first two points, fear-based messaging tends to lead to the exact opposite by opening the door to excessive anxiety, which then sets the stage for avoidance of experiences, aiming for unrealistic perfection, and overparenting children in order to achieve safety - none of which is helpful.
So then how can people express the seriousness of food allergies with less fear-based messaging?
Below are (2) helpful tips for developing messages that evoke action and empowerment rather than paralyzing worry and fear:
Focus The Message on Building Confidence:
Strike a Balance Within The Message:
Tips For Navigating Fear-Based Messages:
If you haven't already, you'll likely come across fear-based allergy messaging online, because, let's face it - food allergies can feel scary! But don't let these kinds of narratives have the power to make you feel inadequate about how you're navigating life with allergies.
Here are helpful reminders as you come across fear-based messaging:
[It's important to note that if you and/or your child has experienced an allergic reaction, it may feel harder to disengage from these fear-based messages. Monitor how you're coping after reactions, and if you find it hard to regain daily functioning, discuss this with your allergist and consider reaching out for therapeutic support].
Remember, support is 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!
Don't be shy - reach out and say hi! I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this post and other FAC content.
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:
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