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FARE Blog March 24, 2020

Coronavirus, Food Allergies and Mental Health: A Q&A With Dr. Gia Rosenblum

A licensed psychologist and food allergy mom offers tips and resources to support mental and emotional health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guest post by Gianine (Gia) Rosenblum, PhD

Gia Rosenblum

Licensed psychologist Gianine (Gia) Rosenblum, PhD, has served on FARE’s Outcomes Research Advisory Board and Psychosocial Issues Task Force and has been a food allergy mental health curriculum development consultant to Allergy and Asthma Network. She is active in the food allergy community and is the parent of a teenager with food allergies. FARE talked to Gia recently about anxiety amid COVID-19. Here Gia discusses concerns faced by adults with food allergy as well as parents of food-allergic children. A second post will center on parenting during the pandemic.

Why are some adults managing food allergy more stressed than others about COVID-19?

Some food allergy households are already dealing with the daily stress of managing the disease. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is ramping up that anxiety. Stress may be higher for those managing certain ubiquitous allergens such as wheat, milk, soy and egg, or allergens outside the “top 8” like sesame. Lack of relied-upon safe foods, lack of available substitutions for allergens, or fear that those foods will be hard to find, cause additional worry.

People also react differently to stressful situations. Some are “information-focused copers” who seek out information as a means of coping with challenges. This helps them plan for stressors and increases their feelings of control and comfort.  A downside of this strategy is that it can cause information overload and increase anxiety. Managing information flow is key. A helpful strategy is to pick one reputable news source and check it once each day. Printed news sources may be less stressful than broadcast sources, Visual and audio elements, like scrolling banners, strident voices, dramatic music, and other features of broadcast media, can amplify negative emotions. If you must watch broadcast news, it helps to stick to a set time and duration.   

How can people manage their anxiety and concerns about limited resources?

In times of emergency, people benefit from a sense that they are “doing something.”  Feelings of efficacy help alleviate anxiety. It is reasonable that families managing food allergies should stock up on allergen substitutions and safe food essentials. Once the necessary food allergy precautions are taken, however, it is helpful to shift focus to other matters, like additional aspects of physical safety and psychological well-being (more details on those below). It can be helpful to remember that while food production and distribution may be restricted or slowed in some areas, it is not currently shut down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an excellent webpage that lists what people should have on hand during an emergency. It has factual information on how to prepare, including how much of different items you need on hand and safe ways to store them. (FARE’s foodallergy.org website features a webpage that complements CDC recommendations with emergency preparedness information for individuals and families managing food allergy.)

What about the physical safety of individuals whose home life was already difficult and has now been made worse by COVID-19?

Unfortunately, home is not safe for everyone. In homes where there are issues with physical, sexual and/or drug/alcohol abuse, close quarters can escalate these issues. If you feel like you want to harm yourself or others, or if you or a child are at risk of being harmed, the CDC recommends you call 911 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517).

How can we maintain good psychological health while social distancing?

Spending even 20 minutes a day doing something for one’s self will go a long way in maintaining mental health, especially with social distancing in place. Utilize all the options available to you to stay connected to loved ones. Phone call or text, email, social media, video chat, and even old-fashioned letter-writing reduce the loneliness and disconnection that can occur under these unusual circumstances.

Other beneficial practices include listening to music, gardening, taking time to meditate or take a hot bath, or going for a walk outside (maintaining CDC’s guidance on social distancing). For many people, a small daily practice of positive activities can be more beneficial than a once-a-week event. While loneliness is a concern for some, under “stay at home” circumstances, privacy and quiet may be in short supply. Planning to take some private time each day, whether walking outside, or having a bedroom (or even bathroom) to oneself can have great emotional benefits.

Due to social distancing policies, many mental health counselors have transitioned to telehealth and offer sessions via phone or video. These professionals are available to support  people who need more help managing their anxiety, The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), along with some insurance companies, have broadened access to telehealth services so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their medical doctors, and mental health professionals without having to travel to a healthcare facility. The therapist finder at Psychology Today can help you find a provider in your state and provides specific information as to whether a professional has telehealth capabilities. To help with food allergy-related issues, look for a therapist that has experience with medical issues or trauma. You can also see a list at the Food Allergy Counselor Directory.

Additional mental health resources for the COVID-19 pandemic

While not food allergy-specific, these excellent resources expand on many of the topics covered above.

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