Food Allergies and Anxiety: How I Dealt with Seeing a Jaguar at Lunch

Worried Couple

Remember when people lived in caves and dodged jaguars all day? Me neither. But my brain does. That’s why, when I’m stressed out, my blood surges with adrenaline, drains to my extremities, and my attention hones in on the source of my stress. My brain is trying to help me dodge a jaguar even though that’s no longer my biggest problem.

Flash forward a few thousand years and what are our threats? Predators aren’t much of an issue anymore. Five years ago, however, I had a confrontation with a formidable opponent and it almost cost me my life. That foe was my lunch.

Having been contaminated at some point by peanuts, the food that puts me at-risk for anaphylaxis, the lunch sent my body into shock and only fast-acting doctors were able to save my life. I’ve heard this story repeated by many other people with allergies. But here is the part that often gets left out. After all the other symptoms faded, and my life was no longer in any immediate danger, I experienced crippling anxiety around food. My brain now considered every meal to be a jaguar.

At first I was nervous any time I ate. I never realized before how many sensations I experience with every mouthful of food. From itchy spots on my skin, to dry mouth, to an itchy tongue, and even stomach cramps, my new adrenaline fueled state of mind could not help but see danger in hundreds of little things that surrounded the normal experience of eating. For a while, even thinking about a meal cooked by someone else sent me into a full blown panic attack.

As time passed, the anxiety started to fade. But even months later I struggled to “act cool” in a restaurant. I was always on edge. Now, several years later, I still find myself losing my cool sometimes. My problem shifted from how to live with a severe allergy to how to live with food at all.

Through trial and error, as well as with input from some fantastic friends, I have a few strategies I use to overcome my anxiety when it arises and, more importantly, to ensure that I don’t have any major panic attacks.

The most important part of getting back to normal was coming to grips with the fact that anxiety is normal. Before this reaction, I had never experienced a panic attack. At first I fought against these with will power and resistance. Yet I inevitably made things worse. Once, while at a low point in this journey, I had been forcing down anxiety for several days when it all came exploding out at once…in the middle of a busy airport.

If you’ve never seen an adult throw a full-on temper tantrum, let me tell you, it isn’t pretty. It was embarrassing, stressful, and worst of all I was powerless as it happened. After this incident, I had the opportunity to hear from many other people with allergies. I wasn’t weird or abnormal for reacting this way. This is how it goes. In time I was able to gradually “let go” and accept that the trauma I experienced naturally led to a belief that food was dangerous. As I got better and better, I could sense an adrenaline rush coming on and just allow it to happen. I’d feel the surge rise and fall and then go back to my day.

Acceptance was only the first phase of the journey. In order to avoid the occurrence of the panic attacks in the first place, I realized I needed to do a better job of planning ahead. This goes right back to that caveman brain of mine. The panic response comes from being surprised. I began to plan my meals. Often my meals out of the house were spontaneous. I would be out with friends and we would stop at a restaurant wherever we were when we got hungry. I had to change and start telling people up front that I wasn’t ready to be adventurous yet. I had to tell people that there were only certain places I felt comfortable eating and that was that. Whenever possible, I didn’t even enter the building without first calling to speak to a chef. In other cases, I made my own food and avoided the situation all together.

The hardest part was realizing that managing this anxiety was going to be a long process. To help with that I had to be open about it. I started talking to my friends, family, and even co-workers. It was hard and vulnerable but it was also very helpful. I taught people about the things that triggered my panic and they helped me avoid them.

Despite all of my progress and efforts, there are still moments that trigger panic. If you think about it, that is good. If I have a real reaction, that panic may end-up keeping me alive. But, if I have an anxiety attack due to a false alarm, I need a strategy to snap back out of it. For this I found that my best tool is a good self-assessment. Before I continue, please note: I am not a doctor and this assessment is of my own design and not to be taken as medical advice. My self assessment is a system I use to quickly check for some of my biggest symptoms of an allergic reaction.

I bite my tongue to check for itchiness and swelling, pinch my ear to check for itchiness, lift the sleeve of my shirt (the whole shirt if I have enough privacy) to check for hives, and take a few deep breaths to test my airway and also calm down. This will either help me quickly determine that I am indeed having a reaction, or, instead, will reassure me that my symptoms aren’t present. I repeat this assessment (and a few other checks) regularly to see if anything changes. The trick with this one is to understand that I do have an allergy and that I do need to take it seriously. But I can do this calmly.

Life with a severe allergy can be very difficult. As humans, we are wired to react swiftly and intensely to dangers. When we experience the trauma that comes with an allergic reaction, this can lead to some mixed up signals in our brains and cause us to carry around extra anxiety. Now that I’ve shared my story with you, I want to encourage you to share yours. The anxiety and panic that many of us live with are normal occurrences and will never disappear. But, by being open and honest about these, we can help make the process easier and the panic attacks less frequent.

Jason Brennan 

7 thoughts on “Food Allergies and Anxiety: How I Dealt with Seeing a Jaguar at Lunch”

  1. Great post Jason! Those who consider this as only a medical condition and not the impact on quality of life don’t understand.

  2. I can so totally relate to what you were saying. I go through the same feelings after having a bad reaction. Thanks for sharing and showing that I am not alone in those feelings.

  3. Pingback: Jason's Thoughts
  4. Very timely for me. A month ago my child failed her in hospital oral peanut challenge and required her first Epi injection. For the first she is fearful , anxious about eating and has had panic attacks. She imagines a lump in her throat and obsessively clears it. I’m so sad as she is even questioning food I deem safe. I worry there is more under the surface and wonder if therapy would be helpful or if this would draw too much attention and perpetuate the anxiety. I want her to be empowered and cautious without fear like she was before the reaction.

    1. Kirsten, I know this post was a long time ago, but my email just showed your comment now. I want to encourage you to for sure get therapy for your daughter! After a crazy month at the beginning of this year… With Undiagnosed new allergens… I had 8 visits to hospital. I’m up to 10 now since Christmas, 9 of which were full blown epi-requiring situations. I decided to get some professional help for some of the anxiety, both because I’m overwhelmed by allergies right now… But also because the rational person within me occasionally gets pushed aside in the middle of a reaction and I’ve done stupid things as a result.

      For example, despite over a decade of training on Epipens, when mine was first prescribed I cried in the parking lot for half an hour. Then, the first time I had a major reaction (and knew it) I refused to accept it. I called telehealth instead of 911. When the nurse told me to take my epi, instead of using the one on my belt (attached to me) I ran upstairs to get the older one.

      I’ve had other stupid moments, of insisting I was fine, of not telling people all of my symptoms, calling my mom instead of trusting myself (“mom, it hurts to swallow…”).

      I know panic is sometimes part of anaphylaxis, but I wanted to deal with as much of it as I could- because I recognize the dangers of a lot of these illogical thinking patterns! My psychologist has been great; I made sure to find one who understood that there is a certain level of obsessive fear around food that is actually healthy for me, but we’re working on trying to replace destructive thinking patterns with positive ones. In any case it has definitely been helpful for all the moments outside my reactions!

      And hopefully as she grows you can put her in more charge of her own food- I know that’s definitely helped for me, learning to cook more. I listen to music while I grocery shop, too, to help reduce my stress levels as I look at all my allergenic foods. That helps!

  5. I have experienced the exact same thing after being diagnosed with anaphylaxis, it took me about two years to really get over what happened, and the anxiety and panic was the worst thing. As you say, no one ever mentions that part. Once you accept your condition it does become easier. Its all about control, if you are in control of your food and what you put in your body its fine, the challenge comes when you pass the control to others. Eating out and travelling can be a challenge.

  6. I know some of those feelings! Not sure if I’ve ever had a panic attack, but when stressed I definitely start making some very poor decisions when it comes to what I should eat…

    Sadly my last big reaction was actually at home, no cooking involved. I deal with oral allergy syndrome, but get anaphylactic symptoms for two of my thirteen confirmed allergens. So far, the biggest reactions have come from situations where I was in control of what went in my food… Which means that my anxiety happens at home a LOT more than when I’m out at a restaurant. By the time a server gives the standard caveat of “well… We can’t guarantee…” I usually just shrug and let them know that I’m playing Russian roulette just as much at home as I am at the restaurant.

    Not exactly intentionally, of course, but as my allergies are all to fruits and veg- I can’t exactly ask my housemates to avoid all 13 of them. Occasionally I’ve tried asking them to avoid cherries and cucumbers (the two that have been severe), as it causes a lot of anxiety to see it on the table or counter, but my sister just doesn’t get it. She’s a celiac, so she gets the concept of cross-contamination. But she only gets super ill- no trips to emerg or epi or steroids… So she tells me to grow up when I voice the anxiety that seeing those allergens gives me. I’m not sure how to face these fears- as it seems my list of allergens is endless and all fruits and veg could be suspect (cooked or not- sometimes I even react to fruit extracts they use as perfumes in soap). And so I play Russian roulette every day, every meal, every snack- trying to remind myself that at least the epi doesn’t hurt.

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