Interview with Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSWPsychotherapistSpecialist in Food Allergy Management
Photo by David Hanschuh © copyright, and reprinted with permission of Sloane Miller, and David Hanschuh
Sloane, you are wonderful advocate, and inspiration for the food allergic community, and show that it is possible to “live well” with food allergies. Living with food allergies can be stressful for children, teens, adults and food allergy parents alike. One of the most overlooked things about living with serious food allergies is the anxiety that comes with living with such a serious condition. As a food allergy parent, with a child at risk of anaphylaxis, we have seen that anxiety is a really big aspect of the condition that many people with food allergies and those that love them do not understand or even recognise.
One major aspect of anxiety is communicating our needs with family and friends. Our anxiety levels can be particularly heightened at the early stages of diagnosis. This can be true whether it's a coeliac (celiac) disease diagnosis or severe food allergies. I know certainly this was the case for our family.
1. How can we communicate our needs without becoming overwhelmed with stress?
It can feel very stressful to talk about something as private and as a personal as a medical diagnosis. I talk about this at length in my book AllergicGirl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies (Wiley, 2011) and with my counseling clients all over the world but here are some things to keep in mind:
It’s very important to understand your food allergy diagnosis. If you have any lingering questions, go back to your medical health care provider and get all of your questions answered. Don’t worry, most people leave that first appointment feeling confused, upset and/or flustered and forget to ask even some of the basics. It’s normal. Just go back and get your questions answered. I have a free download, a list of questions that you should fully understand before leaving the doctor’s office. http://allergicgirl.com/free-guidance/
The reason for understanding your medical diagnosis is multifold but it’s fundamental when it comes to communicating your needs to others. You will need to understand your food allergy diagnosis completely to be able to communicate your needs in a clear, concise and factual manner.
Generally speaking, I suggest using up to three sentences when communicating your needs to anyone, keeping in mind that the underlying message is: my medical needs are real and serious and this is how I need to take care of my needs.
So, for example: “I’m allergic to this ingredient and that ingredient. I cannot consume those ingredients or any foods that came into contact with those ingredients. And I carry emergency medication with me at all times and know how and when to use it.” A few sentences are all you need to let someone know the basic information about your needs and begin to assess how to move forward safely.
Do remember: you have nothing to prove. You do not have to prove your food allergies; all you need to do is communicate your direct needs in any given situation and assess your safety.
For many cultures food is central for celebrations. And in families often food is equated with love.
2. How can we navigate staying connected with family?
Food may be “equated” with love but food isn’t actually love. Food is food. Love is love. Food is neither good nor bad. Love is love and can be/is expressed in a multitude of ways.
Your job will be to separate your feelings out about food and love and help others understand that to love you is either to feed you safely according to your needs or not to feed you and to show love in other non-food ways.
As the holidays are coming up, start this conversation about your needs with loved ones early. If your food requirements cannot be accommodated within a family setting safely, then you cannot eat there. But that doesn’t mean you cannot go. Not only should you go but you must go! Do whatever you need to be able to attend a food-focused family event safely, like bringing your own safe dishes, and connect to your family in non-food ways. Enjoy the non-food based love that family has to offer.
Many children with serious allergies often become fearful of food. But also they often have a higher rate of generalised anxiety compared to other children, and as research has demonstrated are more likely to be targets of bullying.
3. What can we do to help our children deal with anxiety as food allergy parents?
The best first thing you can do is deal with any anxiety you have as a parent about your child’s food allergy diagnosis. If you do not feel on sure footing yourself, you cannot help your child feel secure. The below exercise works with parents and children alike. Please note: these are very broad strokes of an in-depth process that I do within a counseling relationship. The below is only meant to give an idea of where to start looking for answers to quell your concerns, not a substitute for counseling.
Anxiety is based on a series of “what if” thoughts that spiral out of control. The “what ifs” are not necessarily based in reality so it is crucial to ground oneself in the reality and separate out what might be triggering the anxiety spiral. Here’s one way to begin to learn to separate what is an irrational fear versus a real risk:
Write down all of your fears, anxieties, your concerns and even your worst-case scenarios about any given situation.
Once you’ve written down your list of scary “what ifs”, do your best to take a critical look at your concerns and begin to sort out the rational fears from the irrational ones e.g. this could really medically happen, the doctor told me so, or, those things couldn't happen but I feel nervous about it happening even though I know it’s not real.
Explore your feelings with a trusted loved one: How did you feel looking at your fears critically? What is different once you wrote down your fears? Did you gain any clarity, if so where? What is still unclear to you? What still is a big unknown or upsetting you?
If any of your fears are medical in nature, and I suspect many of them will be, make an appointment to have a consultation with your medical health provider. Write down their answers or record the conversation with their permission.
Continue to extract for yourself irrational fears from rational and possible risks. Go back to your allergist’s words and recommendation. Ground yourself in the reality of the risk versus your fears around the risk.
It will take a lot of work to keep checking in with yourself about what is real and what is imagined but it is worth it to gain clarity and to calm oneself.
Please note: If you are having overwhelming feelings of anxiety, depression and they are impeding normal life functioning and enjoyment, please see a local mental health provider immediately for an evaluation.
Thank you Kylie for your wonderful questions!
I work with clients around the world and would be happy to offer anyone coming through your site a %10 discount on my regular counseling rate.
Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSW
Specialist in Food Allergy Management
Sloane Miller, MFA, MSW, LMSW, psychotherapist, specialist in food allergy management and author, is founder and President of Allergic Girl Resources, Inc., a consultancy devoted to food allergy awareness. She consults with private clients, the healthcare, food and hospitality industries, government and not-for-profit advocacy organizations. Ms. Miller earned her Master of Social Work at the
New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and her
Master of Fine Arts in Writing and Literature at .
In 2006, she started Please Don't Pass the Nuts, an award-winning blog for
and about people affected by food allergies. In 2011, John Wiley & Sons
published Ms. Miller's book, Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well With
Food Allergies, the definitive how-to guide. Ms. Miller combines a lifetime of
personal experience and passion with professional expertise to connect with
people about how to live safely, effectively, and joyously with food allergies.
For more information, please visit Allergic Girl Resources, Inc. on the
Internet at www.allergicgirl.com Bennington College
(Allergic Girl: Adventures in Living Well with Food Allergies by Sloane Miller.
Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted with permission
of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Picture © Kenneth Chen)