The Anxiety of Never Having an Allergic Reaction

As someone who has been immersed in the food allergy world for most my life, I’ve read and heard a lot about anxiety with food allergies. However, most of the attention has always been on anxiety after experiencing an allergic reaction. As an example, my brother has had three major reactions to peanuts or tree nuts where he had to use his epinephrine auto-injector. After each of these reactions, he was very hesitant to eat out or try any new foods for fear that they might trigger another reaction. One of my best friends grew into his food allergies after the age of 20 and has since experienced at least 11 severe allergic reactions, some of which required the use of multiple epinephrine auto-injectors and very close calls in getting to the hospital. Needless to say, his anxiety when eating in a social setting is quite high!

My own anxiety about my food allergy to peanuts and tree nuts feels quite different. I’m technically at-risk for anaphylaxis. I’ve been tested every other year for as long as I can remember and the result is always the same. The peanut bump always swells up like a balloon. That being said, I’ve been extremely fortunate and never experienced an allergic reaction. I know the signs and symptoms only through what I’ve read, heard, or seen. I’ve never physically or mentally experienced what a reaction actually feels like but I still get anxious at times.

man with stressed face expression brain melting into linesI’ll give you an example. Around the holiday season, people like to share baked goods with me at the physiotherapy clinic I work for. I know baked goods are potentially risky for someone with a peanut/tree nut allergy so I always triple check ingredients and ask about the risk for cross-contamination. Only when I feel 100% confident that the treat is allergen-safe, will I take a bite. Well on one particular instance, a patient brought in brownies. I asked about each and every ingredient, was taken through the steps required to make them, and was assured they were “nut-free” because she had a nephew who had the same allergy. From the protocol I made for myself, the brownies passed every test. So I took a bite. It was delicious! I thought about how I could easily eat the entire batch and not think twice about it.

Then, I heard the patient chatting with another patient about Belgian chocolate that she bought from a bulk food store. Bulk food? Belgian chocolate? One red flag went up. She continued to talk about how that chocolate was so good that she put it in the brownies. Another red flag went up. As she turned to me, she asked if I could taste that chocolate. All I could think about was the risk of cross-contamination from the bulk food store. As a rule, I never eat “may contain peanuts or tree nuts” products because any risk is too much risk for me. So in the moment, I simply nodded my reply, set down the rest of my brownie and left the clinic to go on my lunch. As I drove, I checked my signs and symptoms a hundred times thinking that I was likely to react. I was shaking and had put myself into an anxious fit! An hour passed, then two, then three, and I realized I must have been lucky this time.

It may have been an over reaction on my part but I still think I had reason to feel anxious. The unknown, especially when it comes to food, can be quite nerve-wracking. I also think that maybe my own anxiety stems from the fact that I’ve had to administer an epinephrine auto-injector on both my brother and my best friend. Maybe it stems from the fact that I have seen the fear in my friend’s face when he was experiencing his most severe allergic reaction. Whatever the case, I’ve learned to slow my breathing, calm my thoughts, and focus on what is actually happening, not what I think could happen. This strategy has helped me conquer food-related anxiety multiple times and I consider myself very lucky to be 17 years without an allergic reaction (knock on wood!!)

– Dylan B.

10 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Never Having an Allergic Reaction”

  1. I can so relate! I have had my severe peanut allergy since I was 17. I have gone 25 years without a reaction. I am so careful; some think I am overly cautious but I do not want to go into anaphylactic shock due to ignorance. I am proud to say I have never had to use my EpiPen though most times family and co-workers think I am not as severe as I say because I have never had a reaction. I’ve never had one because I am very careful. It’s frustrating at times, especially as an adult.

    1. Thank you for sharing Paulette! Yes, it can be quite frustrating at times when other people don’t fully comprehend how careful you are and how diligent you are about checking food for your allergens. As long as you’re safe, that’s all that really matters. Thanks again for sharing!

  2. Great topic. Having a near death experience can result in PTSD and the chronic behaviors to avoid a subsequent exposure may qualify as cPTSD. Long-term cortisol production associated with these disorders can lead to other chronic health problems. That’s why it’s so important for people with allergies to understand their risks, communicate them and for the people they are dealing with to take them seriously. Your example of “I have a nephew with the same allergy” would give me some reassurance as well, but it sounds like this relationship your patient didn’t really understand exactly what the ramifications were for CC.

  3. This is such a great topic to bring up. Especially since so many people without food allergies think we are overly cautious. If that means you go without a reaction than you are doing things right 😀

    When you explain: ‘slow my breathing, calm my thoughts, and focus on what is actually happening, not what I think could happen.’ this is so important! There have been many times where I felt I was going to have a reaction and I needed to just be calm and not have a panic attack instead.

  4. Thank you so much for your article. I can truly relate to the anxiety around having eaten a particular food and then having uncertainty about whether you’ll experience an allergic reaction, as a result. What a frightening experience. I have a shellfish allergy which developed in adulthood. For the most part I’ve been diligent in monitoring all my foods.

  5. A great article. I can relate. Lately I have had a lot of anxiety due to a scented products allergy. It is so scary when you cannot control this, especially when you work with the public. On top of this a lot of other allergies and food intolerances. I take ventilan and do breathing techniques to try and calm down.

  6. Thank you for sharing your story. Have you ever considered having component testing done which can help show the nature of your actual peanut allergy? It tests your blood against specific peanut proteins and can tell you which ones individually you might react to. Depending on which proteins you react to, it could change the picture of what kind of allergic reaction you could expect if an exposure were to occur. Of course, you would want to run all of this past your allergist, but because it’s a newer test perhaps it’s not something that has been suggested to you to try. Especially because you haven’t ever experienced an actual reaction, it seems to me that some additional knowledge about the nature of your allergy might be helpful from a psychological standpoint. Thanks again.

  7. One more thought – there are new treatment options coming soon, specifically the Viaskin peanut patch. It brings small amounts of peanut protein into contact with your system transdermally. It’s testing very well – safe and effective – and is finishing stage 3 trials now. It was fast-tracked by the FDA. The trials to date have been with younger patients, but it may be something to keep an eye on for older patients as they continue testing.

  8. This is the best blog post I’ve ever read. I feel like a maniac because I don’t eat anything that anyone has potentially touched without gloves/washed hands (buffet, friends/family cooking, shared snacks, etc). I feel like I have panic attacks weekly (always worried it’s Ana but it never has been). Would be interested to know more details about how people discern between ana and panic.

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