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Navigating Food Allergy Burnout

stressed woman

Have you ever experienced burnout from managing your food allergy or allergic condition? (If you've said no to this, please share your tips with everyone!)

What exactly is burnout?

According to the American Psychological Association, burnout is "physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others."

It can be brought on by ongoing, prolonged or repeated stress, and you may not even realize you're experiencing burnout until you notice your daily functioning has taken a hit. Burnout can make you may feel so exhausted and sluggish that even the simplest tasks feel overwhelming to complete. Or you may feel so stressed that you're quick to anger and find things extremely frustrating. Your sleeping and eating schedule may be thrown off, and you may experience a general sense of dread, too.

This may sound similar to depression, but they aren't the same, although burnout can give way to clinical mental health diagnoses such as major depressive disorder. (For more on this, check out this Cleveland Clinic article).

Additionally, burnout can kick in especially when you don't have (or aren't utilizing) coping strategies to help you manage the ongoing stress.

What is chronic illness burnout?

Burnout can develop when there is a significant and/or ongoing imbalance between various parts of your life. The classic example is work-life imbalance.

Another imbalance people might experience is one between managing your health condition and all the other areas of your life. In fact, the term chronic illness burnout has been coined to describe a stress response and sense of overwhelm related to managing an ongoing health condition. As such, managing a life-long food allergy (or allergic condition) could fall into this category if doing so feels stressful and overwhelming. I'll refer to this as food allergy burnout.

For example, if you're focusing on your (or your child's) food allergy or allergic condition so intensely that you're unable to manage daily tasks and other responsibilities, this might create an imbalance that can take a toll on your mental and physical health, leading to food allergy burnout.

Signs that you might be experiencing food allergy burnout might include:

Emotional signs

  • feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and detached about the food allergy

  • feeling incapable of managing the food allergy

  • cynicism about the food allergy, or negative feelings about the food allergy and believing it will never get easier to manage

Behavioral signs:

  • lack of motivation to engage in behaviors that help you or your child stay safe

  • showing less commitment to following through with actions related to food allergy management, treatment, and doctor's appointments

Physical signs:

  • exhaustion (physical and emotional)

  • common stress-related symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, sleep issues

Not everyone managing a food allergy experiences burnout, but it's helpful to be mindful that burnout could creep in, especially during key stressful times in food allergy management.

Key stressful times in food allergy management

Various stages and experiences within allergy management can impact people differently. While some stages may feel more manageable, others can trigger increased levels of distress that may lead to feelings of burnout, including these common triggers:

  • Diagnosis or onset of a food allergy

  • Change in diagnosis, including additional food allergy diagnoses

  • Addition of other allergic conditions

  • Major developmental phase/age/stage transitions

  • Experiencing anaphylaxis or allergic reactions

  • Experiencing other food allergy-related traumas

  • Oral food challenges

  • Oral immunotherapy or other treatments

Common ongoing food allergy stressors that can lead to a sense of food allergy burnout

Most of the food allergy research that is focused on psychosocial impacts reveals that living with allergic conditions can be distressing. As such, here are aspects of food allergy management that are stressful and can lead to experiencing food allergy burnout:

  • Information gathering (especially at diagnosis and during transitions)

  • Ongoing navigation of uncertainty and risk of allergic reactions

  • Constant vigilance, preparation, and planning

  • Parental burden of responsibility for young kids with food allergies

  • Food shopping, label-reading and meal prep

  • Repetitively educating others about food allergies

  • Constantly advocating and self-advocating for safety

  • Navigating pushback and lack of support from others

  • Ongoing financial stressors from safe foods and medications

What helps when experiencing food allergy burnout - and how can you prevent it

Chances are that you've experienced a sense of burnout at some point in your food allergy journey - maybe not consistently, but at key points along the way. After all, it's not always easy juggling food allergy management and all other areas of life!

If you've found strategies for navigating through it, that's wonderful! But if you haven't or need more, below are tips for developing your "Burnout-Be-Gone" approach for food allergy burnout:

  • Prioritize your mental and physical health. Yes, keeping yourself and/or your child safe IS a priority, but your mental and physical health should be as well! If you notice certain actions or thought patterns are taking a toll on either (i.e. causing physical anxiety sensations or impairing your ability to function daily), then it's time to make some shifts so food allergy safety doesn't come at the expense of your general health and well-being.

  • Set protective boundaries. Notice what fuels your feelings of burnout, and write it down somewhere you can reference when needed. Decide what you can subtract or do less of to help rebalance the various areas of your life.

  • Engage in mind-balancing behaviors. Both movement and mindfulness exercises are beneficial to your mind (and body). Even if it's a walk around the block, or a few minutes of deep breathing with a cup of tea or coffee in the morning, set intentions for engaging in more mind-balancing behaviors each day. [For more on allergy mindfulness, check out The FAC's other articles on mindfully managing allergy stress and anxiety].

  • Adjust your routine. Sometimes simply adjusting your routine - or getting back to basics - can make a huge impact on burnout. Have you started staying up too late scrolling through social media in search of allergy information, causing your sleep schedule to go off the rails? That double-whammy can definitely give way to burnout because sleep helps both the mind and body cope with stress (and navigate stressors) more effectively.

  • Reconnect with yourself. Sometimes it feels as if you're on autopilot, right? (I'm nodding my head as I write this!) It can help to shake things up by reconnecting with parts of yourself that you've lost contact with due to the daily monotony of adulting and managing food allergies. Take time to re-explore your hobbies and connect with friends that put a smile on your face. Don't make each day just about managing your food allergy or allergic condition!

Tips for mental health care practitioners helping clients experiencing food allergy burnout

Those managing food allergies appreciate it when people meet them with compassion, an open-mind, and a willingness to understand their experiences.

Therefore, it is helpful for mental health care practitioners to strike a balance between offering compassionate support and therapeutic guidance. Below is a list of tips for working with clients experiencing food allergy burnout:

  • Meet them with compassion and understanding

  • Provide a supportive space to express their internal experiences

  • Validate their emotions and internal experiences

  • Teach coping skills and stress management strategies

  • Help in establishing boundaries and self-care practices

  • Evaluate routines and offer guidance on useful adjustments

  • Assess for potential mood disorders further impacting burnout

  • Help them evaluate which behaviors may be fueling burnout

  • Help them draft questions for their allergist to address burnout

  • Assist them in evaluating which information sources may perpetuate burnout

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