Mindset Matters when Facing Food Allergies

Do you or someone you love struggle with food allergies? Chances are you do. According to foodallergy.org, an estimated 32 million Americans live with this diagnosis, with 5.6 million being children under eighteen. That’s one in thirteen students, roughly two in every classroom. According to the CDC, the number of children diagnosed is increasing. Additionally, children with food allergy are two to four times more likely to have other related conditions such as asthma and other allergies. And, though many adults outgrow allergies with age, others aren’t so lucky. Eight types of food account for over 90% of allergic reactions in affected individuals: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.

One would imagine that, given these overwhelming numbers, those included would feel secure in their diagnosis and confident navigating their daily lives. However, this is not the case. When someone is living with a food allergy, it’s easy to resort to fear. This manifests in what Tamara Hubbard, MA, calls the Fixed Food Allergy Mindset, based off a more general concept from Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck. In her work as The Food Allergy Counselor, Hubbard shares how if one is to prevent their allergies from controlling their lives, they must shift from a Fixed Food Allergy Mindset to one which fosters Growth. She notes how this decision can depend on which “glasses” they choose to see the world. The outcome of that decision determines if an individual will feel capable of handling such challenges.

In a Fixed mindset, receiving a food allergy diagnosis becomes an overwhelming and unconquerable burden. It is something static and inherent, without any possibility for change. The person must be hypervigilant, consistently ensuring they are safe. To them, challenges with the illness become roadblocks, fostering discouragement and helplessness. They may find themselves thinking that their allergies mean they must live in fear all the time. If they relax, it will be at their peril. Especially when it comes to those who are at risk of dying from an allergic reaction. Specifically, the risk of anaphylaxis is a terrifying possibility for those with food allergies. The Mayo Clinic notes that this severe reaction can occur within minutes or even seconds of exposure to the allergen. Or, sometimes, even half an hour after. That’s quite the wide spectrum of time.

The Clinic describes Anaphylaxis as causing the immune system to “release a flood of chemicals that can cause you to go into shock—your blood pressure drops suddenly, and your airways narrow, blocking breathing”. Those who experience this reaction must go to the emergency room, regardless of whether epinephrine is administered (typically in the form of an Epi Pen). Some with food allergies may feel unsure of their ability to use an Epi Pen, thinking they won’t be brave enough. Needless to say, this is a dangerous mindset.

But how can someone know if what they’re experiencing is anaphylaxis? Healthline outlines the variety of symptoms, including:

  • rapid, weak pulse
  • skin rash
  • abdominal pain
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • coughing
  • slurred speech
  • facial swelling
  • trouble breathing
  • wheezing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • itchy skin
  • swelling in mouth and throat
  • nausea or vomiting
  • anaphylactic shock

Of course, one mustn’t necessarily encounter such high risks to feel fear. Even a minor reaction can be unpleasant. And yet, though a certain amount of care is warranted, allowing it to become a roadblock in one’s life can be devastating. Therefore, it is necessary for those living with food allergies to adopt a growth mindset. This requires understanding that challenges can help foster growth, as a necessary part of life. With the growth mindset, those with allergies can realize navigating new situations enables them to gain confidence. They have control of their lives and don’t let allergies control them. If there’s something new they wish to learn, they do so, despite fears they may have. Whether it’s a new hobby, job, or experience, they forge ahead. This doesn’t mean a complete lack of caution, of carelessly going into new territory. Rather, it is a conscious and deliberate awareness. Those with a growth mindset have made their peace with anxiety with their allergies. They realize it is a necessary and helpful tool to properly assess risk.

But, developing this mindset is easier said than done. At its core, Carol Dweck defines mindset as referring to whether someone believes the qualities they possess are fixed or changeable. It requires a building of self-confidence, which depending on how long someone’s lived with the diagnosis has the potential for being extremely difficult. However, there are, as Tamara Hubbard says, resources to help. The most useful of these is participation in a food allergy support group. Hubbard gives six tips to consider when choosing a group, including:

  • Group theme and flavor: Most will have specifics with allergen, age, location, or topic, as well as their own main goals.
  • Your goals: What would you like to get out of being a member of the group? Support? Information? Tips and guidance? Knowing this will help you evaluate which group is the best fit.
  • Emotions: Groups may discuss topics close to the heart, filled with both positive and negative emotions.
  • Balance: Ideally, the groups will have a balance between experiences and facts. Though anecdotes and personal stories are useful, discussion of emotionally charged topics requires the addition of evidence-based information present and easily accessible. If you are more anxious or upset after interaction with a support group, you’ll need to evaluate if it’s the right group for you.
  • Know your journey: Knowing where you are on your journey will help to identify which groups are most beneficial. Your needs will likely be different from when you’re first diagnosed to having a few years of experience. When you gain confidence, you can consider staying in support groups to those who are just starting their journey.
  • The more the merrier?: Is there an ideal number of food allergy support groups you should join? Not necessarily. You may join many groups at first, but learn which ones you prefer as time goes on. It’s about quality rather than quantity!

As you use these and other resources, you will be capable of learning and understanding how to live with a food allergy. It is not the end of the world. Rather, with the right mindset, it can be a powerful asset for your development! Believe in yourself, and you will succeed.

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Jessican Nelson, Antibody Research Advocate

Jessica is a super-senior at BYU, studying English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. In 2017, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and continues to struggle with the illness. Jessica loves listening to audiobooks, especially YA fiction, and wants to be an author herself someday. She’s a Ravenpuff (Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff) and a huge D&D nerd. Her hobbies include singing, dancing, hand lettering, going to Comic Con, and watching way too much Netlix and Hulu! She lives in Provo with her family.