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Fear-Based Messages About Food Allergy Mistakes

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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 toward 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: 

  • You can't make any mistakes when managing food allergies

  • There are no do-overs if you DO make mistakes 

  • Be careful - don't make wrong choices because the results will be catastrophic

  • You need to be 100% on the mark every moment of every day

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 possibility of making mistakes)?

These are normal emotional responses to those kinds 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 a 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 is 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 over-parent 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:

  • Encouraging allergic individuals to build confidence in their ability to manage an allergic reaction is a more useful message, as it motivates people towards action. In order to grow confidence, we must first build competence through practice. Yes, that means that you'll be stepping outside of your comfort zone, but you can do so at your own pace.

  • Without practicing allergy management skills and preparing for the possibility of anaphylaxis, competence, and confidence will not develop - and instead, anxiety and fear may continue to be the main drivers in your decision-making. Therefore, encouraging action toward building confidence helps people feel more capable of managing food allergies and less like they have no control at all. 

Strike a Balance Within The Message:

  • When living with food allergies, we do need to take them seriously. However overly focusing on the seriousness of allergies can lead to the belief that every aspect of allergy life will be hard, if not impossible, to navigate.

  • Therefore, it's helpful to aim to strike a balance between the seriousness and workability of the message. Yes, we want to encourage people to take allergies seriously and make mindful choices, but it's equally important to encourage finding workable ways to live life with allergies that aren't rooted in daily fear. 

Navigating Fear-Based Messages About Food Allergy Mistakes: 

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: 

  • Look beyond the words and interpret what the message is trying to encourage

  • Notice what it triggers and focus on actions that help address the worries

  • Set realistic expectations of self and others - no one can be perfect!

  • Be selective in who/what accounts you follow online - if they often leave you feeling triggered, they aren't useful for you

It's important to note that if you and/or your child have 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


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