Exploring the Role of Psychologists in Helping People Cope With Food Allergies
Thu, April 22, 2021

Exploring the Role of Psychologists in Helping People Cope With Food Allergies

Food allergy is an immune system reaction after eating a certain food. Although the allergic reaction may not be severe for most people, it can be frightening or even life-threatening to some / Photo by: bubutu via 123RF

 

Food allergy is an immune system reaction after eating a certain food. Although the allergic reaction may not be severe for most people, it can be frightening or even life-threatening to some. This severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, which causes tightening and constriction of the airways, a sensation of a swollen throat that makes it hard to breathe, rapid pulse, or dizziness.

Rebecca Knibb, an Associate Professor in Psychology at Aston University, believes that psychologists have a role in helping people cope with life-threatening food allergies. Since people with a food allergy would constantly watch what they eat and the unpredictable nature of their allergic reactions, it impacts their mental health and quality of life. They experience worry and stress trying to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation. Anxiety also affects parents of children with food allergies.

Teenagers consider their allergies more burdensome as they age because they want to go out more or spend time with their friends. Adolescents and older children likewise feel the need to have an independent social life and not just be labeled as having food hypersensitivity. Despite knowing the impact of food allergy on their lives, there remains little research on the interventions on how to improve their quality of life and reduce their anxiety.


Cognitive-behavioral Therapy in Dealing With Life-threatening Food Allergy

Knibb cited two studies, which show how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help parents of kids with food allergies. CBT is a goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment or a talking therapy that focuses on the difficulties that patients experience, such as negative thoughts, behavior, emotions, and symptoms. The goal is to change the patient’s behavior and pattern of thinking behind their difficulties so that it will change the way they feel. There is no published study yet on how the said intervention has helped adolescents or children with food allergies cope. Hence, Knibb believes that such a study should be a priority for health professionals and researchers.

CBT is a goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment or a talking therapy that focuses on the difficulties that patients experience, such as negative thoughts, behavior, emotions, and symptoms / Photo by: belchonock via 123RF


Applying Psychological Skills and Knowledge

The Paediatric Psychology Network (PPN-UK), a network that has made contributions to the psychology profession for the benefit of kids, young people, and their families, offers guidelines on how psychological skills and knowledge can be used to help kids manage their allergy. For example, psychology can be applied when kids are undergoing a skin prick test.

In an August 2019 study, Knibb and colleagues focused on two allergy clinics in the United Kingdom that had funding for clinical psychology services. They said that only within 14 months of service, 40 referrals were already made. The most common reasons behind the referrals were food anxiety, food challenges when a parent sees the child still reacting to food, eating outside the home, sleep difficulties, parental anxiety, low self-esteem or mood, or the use of adrenaline auto-injector, which is a first-aid treatment for anaphylaxis.

In clinical practice, the role of allergy psychologists will be “invaluable,” said Knibb. The therapy sessions they provided will be more cost-effective and they can help slowly make a difference in the life of people with food allergy as well as their family.

Food Allergy: Statistics

More than 170 foods have been found to cause allergic reactions and the major food allergens are peanut, egg, milk, wheat, tree nuts, crustacean shellfish, and fish. These food allergens are responsible for serious food allergy cases in the US. This is according to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), an organization with a mission to improve the quality of life and health of individuals with food allergies and provide them hope through new treatments. Based on their estimate, 32 million Americans suffer from a food allergy and 5.6 million of that population are children below 18 years old. This means that one in 13 kids or two in every classroom has a food allergy.

Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction can send someone to the ER. Once anaphylaxis starts, an effective treatment is a drug called epinephrine or adrenaline. This medicine though should be injected within minutes at the onset of the symptoms because not treating it immediately increases the risk of a fatal allergic reaction.

Most often, allergies to soy, wheat, egg, and milk resolve in childhood. However, allergies to shellfish, fish, tree nuts, and peanuts can be lifelong.

While allergists are specially trained to identify allergies and their triggers, psychologists are trained to diagnose and treat people suffering from psychological distress. This means that psychologists have the professional training to help patients deal more effectively with their issues and the disorders that are made worse by certain factors. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics state that there are 181,700 psychologists employed in 2018. Some of them work independently, work with patients, consult with clients, or conduct research. Others work as part of a team and collaborate with social workers and other physicians in school settings or private practice.  

Developments in the field of psychology are happening in different parts of the globe. If more psychologists can help patients with food allergy improve their mental health and quality of life, it would surely make a difference in their life and their families, too.