Mental Health Awareness Month: The Effects of PTSD & Food Allergies

Emery G.

by Emery Gewirtz, M.A., School Psychology, FAACT Director of Behavioral Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month AND Food Allergy Awareness Month. While it is a coincidence that these two important issues share a month of awareness, the correlation between them are important to note. Having food allergies can create a psychological burden – for the person living with food allergies and their family. Statistics show that 41 percent of people affected by food allergies report a significant impact on their stress levels. In some studies, individuals and families living with food allergies report a lower quality of life. During this awareness month, we would like to shine a light on one particular mental health issue that can be associated with food allergies: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Post-traumatic stress disorder…develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened, even when they are not in danger.” While there are many risk factors that contribute to the development of PTSD, some include experiencing a childhood trauma, having a friend or family member experience danger or harm, and/or the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one.

If you have experienced anaphylaxis or watched your child suffer a severe anaphylactic reaction, you have experienced trauma. The aftermath of that trauma can look different for people. Some people are able to move on right away, others may not. So how do we address these concerns after the fact?

Kendall Renee, a 22-year-old living in California, is allergic to 95 percent of all foods and was diagnosed with PTSD at age 16. For Kendall, symptoms showed up as severe nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, triggers from certain sights or smells, and being so stressed that her blood pressure was affected. “One of the symptoms that really puzzled me was for some time was when anything touched one of my legs, I would freeze up. I was always trying to cover my legs because if I even looked down at my legs, I would instantly remember an auto-injector being administered. As an adult, this doesn’t scare me at all. But as a child, I was afraid of the needle, and even though the shot never hurt, my body remembered that shock.” Kendall began seeing a psychiatrist when she was 16 who helped her work through these issues.

Seeking help is a vital step in working through any mental health issue. With her therapist, Kendall was able to talk about her experiences and work through them. “In facing the trauma head on, I was able to take control of my life again.”

Taking control of your life is powerful. A person with food allergies cannot avoid being around their allergens at all times, which could be anxiety-inducing or bring back traumatic flashbacks, however, they can learn to cope with their triggers. Understanding your triggers, how to manage them, and how to move forward when things go sour are just as important for someone with allergies to learn as it is for them to learn to read a label. While there are myriad coping skills you or your child can learn, one technique that Kendall Renee recommends is “grounding.” There are many types of grounding techniques, but the one that worked for Kendall was planting both of feet on the ground and really focusing on them. With that, you can remind yourself that you’re here, right now, in the present, where you are safe and in control.

Kendall offers a piece of advice for anyone who may be suffering from PTSD due to a food allergy experience: “Find something that you love – a hobby, your job, your passion. Things that make you happy and that are a safe space. For me, I was able to find a healthy distraction in my sport and in my music. It was an escape for me, and still is.” Finding a safe or happy place is another incredible way to cope with the stressors of food allergies.

If PTSD is something you or your child are struggling with, know that you are not alone. To learn more about PTSD and how it relates to food allergies, visit FAACT’s website.

** This article is not intended to be used for medical advice. Please consult a board-certified physician or counselor for mental health assistance.