Anxiety generally accompanies the diagnosis of food allergy, so parents must be alert for signs of anxiety in their child, and themselves.
Since kids (and adults) do not always understand what they feel or know how to put anxious feelings into words, intense anxiety is often expressed physically, behaviorally, socially, or cognitively.
Signs of Anxiety
Physical Signs: Anxious individuals may shake, cry, or complain of ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, or pain. Sometimes anxiety manifests as an unexplained illness, or as allergy symptoms (e.g., scratchy throat) without exposure to an allergen.
Behavioral Signs. Anxiety can leave people argumentative, irritable, and avoidant. Some individuals act over cautious (e.g., refuse to eat safe foods, constantly check food labels), or act aggressively. Others may increase impulsive or risk-taking behavior such as eating new foods without checking the ingredients.
Social Signs. The quality of relationships is often affected by anxiety since individuals may seek attention in unhealthy ways, generate conflicts, or withdraw from people and social events.
Cognitive Signs. Thoughts about “what if?” can lead to rumination and hyper-vigilance, reducing mental concentration, and focus. Individuals may seem preoccupied or detached, and school or work performance can suffer.
Life Stages Affect Food Allergy Anxiety
A child’s expression of anxiety – whether verbal, physical, behavioral, social, or cognitive – will also reflect their level of development.
Ages 1 – 6. A young child mirrors the world of their family. Before the age of seven, kids are concrete, here-and-now thinkers, so any anxiety about future possibilities (e.g., food reactions) is usually a reflection of parental anxiety.
Ages 7 – 12. As the awareness of self and other expands, children discover their own emotional responses, but have not developed much understanding or control of them. Kids this age start to think abstractly and can imagine consequences such as an allergen exposure while at school or in a restaurant. Anxiety is often expressed behaviorally, or socially.
Ages 13 – 18. In adolescence emotional expression grows more sophisticated, thinking is more independent and abstract, and social circles widen. Emotionally intimate relationships may form. By this age, most kids can competently manage their food allergy, but precautions normally exercised may be undermined by the need for peer acceptance, or lost in a rush to try new things.
Young Adults. Parents are often the anxious ones as young adults take on the wider world. Fledgling adults are future focused, gaining emotional maturity, and are learning to balance their safety, nutrition, and social needs within the reality of their food allergy.
If you or your child has anxiety symptoms that interfere with daily functioning, seek help from a doctor, school counselor, or mental health professional. Anxiety can be debilitating, but is a treatable condition.