Good Mental Health is more than just the absence of mental illness.
WHO defines mental health in the following terms.
‘Mental health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community’
There is a lot of research out there that talks about the high rates of anxiety and depression in the parents of children with food allergy. But what about those who are living with chronic stress, and distress that don’t meet diagnostic criteria for a medical diagnosis?
I believe that those numbers are even higher.
There are so many reasons why the mental health of ‘allergy parents’ can come under strain. The ‘normal stressors of life’ for us are often magnified compared to non-allergy friends.
The mental load of checking and rechecking labels, planning ahead, ensuring safe food is available takes it toll. Worrying about emergency situations, appropriate medication administration, your child’s safety while in the care of others similarly chips away at mental health.
There is very little mental downtime, there is very little room for error. Accidental exposures can have serious and devastating consequences, so although the threat is intermittent, the worry and anxiety of parents (and often our children) is constant.
Speaking to health professionals working in the food allergy space, nearly all of them agree that managing food allergies in your own home can become comfortable. It’s when you have to step out the front door that life feels scary and dangerous.
It is very easy to unconsciously restrict the scope of our lives, so that our anxiety over the unforeseen is manageable. But this constriction trickles down to our kids and colours their experience and perception of the world.
Even if you don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis of anxiety or depression, I’m sure you probably miss the more spontaneous, carefree days pre-diagnosis or feel like your quality of life has taken a hit.
So what can we do about this?
We can’t change the underlying reality of food allergies- there is no cure (yet!).
We CAN, however, change our experience of it.
You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.
— Brian Tracy
In a situation where very often we don’t feel we have a choice, it’s important to take a step back and think about all the ways we DO still have choices and control. There are definitely things we can do practically to make our day-to-day lives with food allergy easier, but in my experience it’s the changes to my mental game that have made the biggest difference to my well-being as an allergy mum.
I think the first (and often hardest) thing is acceptance: acceptance that this is a hard situation, that you didn’t choose this, and that this diagnosis and what it means for your life just doesn’t seem fair.
Accepting your unique allergy journey, and then deciding, and choosing behaviours and ways of living that will allow the joy back in.
Imagine if instead of using your mental energy to fight those fear-based thoughts or suppress them, you just acknowledged them, said ‘ok, thanks, you can stop now’ and just quietened down that overactive brain to find a little peace.
Trying to fight anxiety or anxious thoughts just makes them ‘shout’ louder. You can’t outrun your inner voice, so you might as well stop, let those feelings be heard, and know that they are just like a wave- they will roll on through you and be gone, if only you stop trying to hold them back.
Acknowledging, accepting in a non-judgmental way and ‘fact-checking’ your situation (are we currently safe in this moment?) can be powerful ways to slow that racing heart and catastrophising thoughts.
We really need to be building a toolkit for mental health- all humans should have one, not just allergy parents. Perhaps one of the gifts we can give ourselves to compensate for this difficult path we’re on is a focus on finding things that help us feel good and be well.
These days we are all very away of ‘self-care’, and I do love a bubble bath every now and then, but the thing about self-care is that it often has to happen when we are ‘off the clock’. And so when we are tired and stressed and busy and probably most need self-care, it’s often the first thing to go. I can’t even count the number of allergy mums who have laughed at me when i’ve asked what they do for themselves.
So we need things we can reach for in the moment, things that can be done on the run, that make a difference so we want to keep doing them. We need things that help turn the negative symptoms around when things are tough, but we also need things that keep us well- it’s so easy to get complacent when things are in flow, but we still need practices as part of each day to keep our wellbeing front and centre.
So I’ve compiled a bit of a list of things that work for me. These are things that i’ve learnt through courses, that I’ve heard about on podcasts, have seen in the research on positive psychology and wellbeing- or have been taught by professionals. Some of these come naturally, some I’ve fought kicking and screaming until I’ve tried it and realised how much lighter my world felt.
As with all things, what works for me, may not work for you, but a lot of these techniques are backed up by evidence and science and all those things that make it harder to argue with the necessity of sometimes just putting on your big girl pants and giving it a go.
My personal essentials for well-being.
Get enough sleep
This is one i really struggle with. I’m up at 6 each morning with the boys (sometimes earlier) so ideally i should be getting to bed around 9pm, but that is just when I’m starting to wind down.
I put the kids to bed at 7-7.30pm, then come downstairs, cook dinner for my husband and I, eat, tidy the kitchen, do a few chores in front of the tv and all of a sudden it’s 11pm and I’m trudging up to do my teeth, check on the kids before crawling into bed exhausted. Heaven help us if the kids decide to come in and wake me during the night for nightmares or chats or cuddles.
So I have set myself the goal of one night a week I need to be in bed by 9pm. It’s my treat night, and I have really started looking forward to it. Maybe next month I’ll aim for 2 nights!
For me, this is such an important one. With all the research emerging about the impact of the gut microbiome on mood (as well as multiple other things- food allergies included!), I have become much more conscious of how i am fuelling my body and brain.
Getting lots of prebiotics (which is essentially fibre- the ‘food’ for probiotics) has been the mainstay of my dietary changes. We do eat yoghurt, some fermented foods (my husband more than me!) so get probiotics from our diet rather than supplements.
I also make sure i am getting enough fat and protein- as a vegetarian who wasn’t able to eat dairy soy or eggs for an extended period while breastfeeding I’ve lost the taste for these ingredients. Add in the fact that we don’t have nuts in the house due to Caleb’s allergies and I need to be very mindful using about seeds, oils and legumes to get a well balanced diet.
Interestingly there was a study published in January 2017 (Thomson et al, published in Frontiers of Behavioural Neuroscience) that a diet rich in prebiotics had a beneficial effect on sleep- even more reason to make sure we get enough veges!
I need to run- more than any other form of exercise, for me running clears my head, reduces any physical symptoms of stress and just generally makes me a better person to be around.
Whether you like walking, cycling, dancing or punishing the cross-trainer, move your body, every day.
If you haven’t exercised for a while, start slow, go easy and make sure you don’t become a weekend warrior.
There’s a great quote by Karen Young of Hey Sigmund. She writes ‘Be where you are, not where your anxiety wants to take you’.
Mindfulness is such a powerful tool to bring us to the here and now. Noticing what we can see, feel, hear, touch can help ground us and lessen the pull of those ‘what if’ thoughts that can sometimes race through our minds.
There are some great apps I’ve found helpful- the Headspace App guides you through some of the techniques of meditation- like scanning (mentally drawing attention to each part of your body, becoming aware of the sensations in your body rather than always staying ’stuck in your head’), breath awareness, noting (noting all those thoughts in a non-judgemental way, not trying to control them or change them or stop them, just letting them pass by as you allow clouds to pass by).
There is a free app ‘Insight Timer’ which has guided meditations, often with a theme that i’ve found helpful.
I also do yoga (at home)- and now i’ve finally stopped rolling up my mat as soon as the active practice is finished and actually love that last 5 minutes of deep relaxation and guided meditation.
Get your creative juices flowing.
I am not an artist. I am less than rudimentary when it comes to drawing!
My creativity lies in cooking, in making our home feel welcoming and comfortable, playing with flowers from our garden and sometimes in my writing.
As mums we often push creativity to the side as something frivolous and unnecessary. But i have learnt that for me to be at my best, I have to have some form of creative outlet. Which means not always cooking sausages and mashed potato, not always repeating the same functional meals or chores etc.
Just little moments where we make something new that wasn’t there before- it’s magic.
Understand that flexibility is a superpower.
It is so easy to become rigid as an allergy parent. We are all about the rules.
And for good reason.
Please do not for a minute think that i am advocating anything other than rigid adherence to allergen avoidance, carrying your epipens and action plans everywhere and advocating far and wide for your child.
But where we can be flexible, we really need to re-learn how to be. Because without that softness and flexibility, it’s so hard for our brains to do all those other things (like creativity) that help us not fall into a spiral of anxiety and/or depression.
I’ve learnt this last year the power of flexibility- and the impact it can have especially on the other members of the family.
I try and do this one each day- some days i forget, often these days i don’t write it down, but I would recommend if you can, put pen to paper and record your gratitude. I love going back and reminding myself of little things that brightened my day when i was in the thick of it with 3 kids under 4 and the very smallest thing made it into that journal!
It’s also a great one for kids- they know how to do this stuff so much more than I ever did.
At dinner i’ll often ask them ‘what was the best bit of your day’, and then i also ask them ‘what was something that you did today that was hard, or that you needed to be brave for?’ Really simple, but can give a great insight into how they are travelling.
This is such a tricky one for allergy parents.
Especially when our child is first diagnosed, we often bunker down and withdraw from situations that feel unsafe. It’s a very common experience for allergy parents to feel that no one understands our situation, which can increase that sense of isolation.
Old friends who are able to adapt and come along with you are gold.
But there are also places to find new friends, other allergy mums who have been there, know what it is like and who are there as a sounding board and cheersquad all rolled into one- priceless.
Whether you’re lucky enough to find allergy-friendly playgroups, support hubs or online communities, that’s your tribe, your people- lean into them, reach out rather than withdrawing.
Get out into nature.
Beach, bush, garden whatever- i need it to be happy at least once a week
Focus on your strengths and find ways to use them
This is something relatively new to me. I heard a podcast on strength-based parenting and how finding our children’s strengths can change the way we parent. I fall into the school of ‘our kids are our best teachers’ and what i have learnt and continue to learn for them (as well as from them) has changed me immeasurably.
There are online tools you can use to find our what your core strengths are- mine are love and a love of learning, which makes total sense to me. When i went back to uni at the end of 2017, it felt like a light had gone back one- Despite the dry subject matter (it was a business related degree!) i was so excited and happy and felt like i’d got a little bit of me back that had been missing in the fog of early motherhood.
Knowing that about me has changed the way i plan for wellbeing- i am so much more aware of building in growth and learning into my week- it sounds indulgent, but for me, it’s a necessity- even if it just means listening to a podcast while i’m doing the school run.
This one either had to go first as the most important, or last as the wrap up, overarching ‘thing’ that makes sense of everything else.
Dr Kristen Neff is a psychologist and an associate-professor at The University of Austin. She developed a ‘self-compassion scale’ and has contributed greatly to the understanding and conversation around self-compassion.
Self compassion is different to self-care. It is something we can reach for in those moments of absolute misery to help ourselves feel better.
Self Compassion has three parts to it:
- Being warm and understanding towards ourselves when we fail or feel inadequate. NOT ignoring our pain or being self-critical
- Understand that suffering is part of being human- that it’s not just something that happens only to us
- Practicing mindfulness rather than over-identifying.
This is probably the key to self-compassion. Being able to identify/see our thoughts without locking onto them and ‘ruminating’ can make such a huge difference to our experience as allergy parents. Being able to give ourselves that understanding and kindness and validation we might feel is lacking from other sources sometimes- it honestly can change everything.
‘Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.’
This list is by no means exhaustive. It is not an in depth explanation of why these techniques work or how to do them. But it might prompt you to think outside the self-care box and start looking for your own tools to fill your toolbox.
If it feels as though anxiety or depression is becoming a part of daily life, I strongly urge you to reach out to your GP, a psychologist, counsellor, or other trusted source of support. Beyond Blue is a great starting point for getting information about what services are available both online and face-to-face. The introduction of Mental Health Treatment Plans has made psychology services more financially viable for many people who couldn’t afford private counselling previously. Life can and will get better, please know that you don’t have to stay stuck. xxx