Clinical psychologists work in a range of mental health and specialist physical health settings, however an area where you might find less psychologists is within the field of allergy.
Working in a paediatric allergy department in central London was one of the best jobs I’ve had, but it made me realise that the understanding of the ways in which clinical psychologists can help those with allergies needs a greater spotlight.
So, here’s a quick overview of a few of the ways I work with young people and families living with life threatening allergies.
Adjustment to diagnosis
The early months after receiving an allergy diagnosis is primarily focused on the dietary and medical management of the allergy, however it’s important to remember just how life changing a diagnosis can be for the whole family, and that the psychological adjustment to learning to live with an allergy is important to acknowledge too.
The fear and anxiety that accompanies diagnosis is probably one of the most common things I discuss with families. There is a drive to keep yourself or children safe at all costs, but how to do this when there are so many potential dangers in the world and do this, without limiting opportunities in the process?
Another common theme is how to manage anxiety as a parent, so a child doesn’t grow up fearful, but also having safe enough boundaries and enough urgency that those involved understand the seriousness of the allergy. You can appreciate how this is a minefield and unfortunately there are no easy answers. However, going through these questions and talking through these dilemmas can certainly help with managing anxiety as a family and establishing your safe-enough position.
Adjusting to diagnosis may also mean thinking about existing beliefs around food and eating and how these will change going forward. There is often a sense of loss and sadness at the realisation of things you might have to do differently as a family and the things you might miss out on.
Having an allergy typically comes with a number of procedures including skin prick tests, blood tests, needing to know to use auto adrenaline devices and participating in food challenges. All of these can be accompanied with anxiety and in some instances this anxiety can get in the way of these important procedures taking place. Prepping children for these procedures is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job as a psychologist. With some playful renaming, gentle exposure and careful preparation even the most anxious child can come out proudly showing you their skin prick bumps and needle holes.
Feeding difficulties and fear of eating
The relationship we have with food is such an important one and living with food allergy can negatively impact on this relationship.
I frequently work with parents of young children to encourage them to introduce new tastes and flavours into their child’s diet, whilst also addressing early unhelpful feeding relationships and promoting positive mealtimes.
I also work with children who have developed fears of eating the foods they are actually safe to do so. Introducing safe feared foods takes time, patience and trust, but it so important to get on top of this before anxiety takes over eating altogether and unhealthy eating behaviours become established.
We all need to remember just what a social experience eating is and how much food is a central part of many of our social activities, think birthdays, religious celebrations, ice creams in the park after school! If you have allergies, then this can impact on building friendships and engagement in such social events. Therefore, early support regarding managing the things that so many take for granted, such as eating in restaurants and unfamiliar environments, going to sleepovers and birthday parties is also a major way that a psychologist can help someone with allergies. This is done through careful planning and preparation, learning of strategies to help manage anxiety in feared situations, learning to risk assess situations realistically (rather than through the fear lens), whilst at the same time gradually building up to feared situations. It may also involve developing skills in how to communicate your needs and allergy requirements confidently.
Managing traumatic allergic reactions
We hope it doesn’t happen but the reality of living with allergies means there is a chance you may be exposed to a traumatic situation or anaphylaxis reaction following accidental exposure.
This can be a highly traumatic experience if it happens, for the person, their family and anyone who may have been present at the time. It can also then lead to an increase in anxiety and avoidance.
It is so important that those who need it, have appropriate support to talk about and process what has happened to them, as well as thinking about the impact this has had and how to move forward.
Living confidently with an allergy
Confidence and self-esteem is one of the things I am most passionate about as a clinical psychologist. Confidence has a lot to do with your beliefs on how you can cope with life’s challenges and the narrative you hold about yourself and who you are.
After speaking with many teenagers living with allergy, I quickly realised just how much the story of their allergy dominated their narrative about who they were. An allergy is something you have to live with, but I strongly believe that it does not have to completely define who you are! Learning to connect with the other aspects of who you are, owning your allergy so you feel like you are in control and not controlled by it, and removing all the shame associated with having it is also another valuable way I see that psychologists can help those living with allergy.
If any of this resonates with you or you want further tips and support on managing your well-being living with an allergy, please head over to my Instagram page for more tips and advice or send me a message via my website.