Allergies and mental health: how ‘constant risk assessment’ can lead to severe anxiety

While Natasha’s Law has been a positive move for food allergy sufferers, the mental health impact is still not fully acknowledged

The mental health impact of allergies is “underrated” and is not talked about enough, according to a food allergy sufferer whose condition led to her experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ella, 20, from Bromley, London, was first diagnosed with milk and egg allergies at six months old, and is extremely sensitive to even a trace amount of them within her food.

While Natasha’s Law has been a positive move for food allergy sufferers, the mental health impact is still not fully acknowledged

She has experienced many serious anaphylactic reactions over the years - her first being at 18 months old - which have led to emergency admissions and constant anxiety when leaving her home.

Any trace of eggs or milk in any food can cause Ella extremely severe allergic reactions, with her allergies having always had a “heavy impact” on her daily life and on her family and friends.

Ella has learnt how to better manage her allergies, but she said she still finds herself “very uncomfortable” when she goes out for a meal, which “severely impacts” her social life and has a “knock-on effect” on her mental health.

“Although my awareness has grown, I am suffering from PTSD due to my allergies,” she said. “I think the impact on mental health is underrated and is not talked about or treated.”

She experienced PTSD due to her severe allergic reactions being a “very frightening and distressing experience”, which has stayed with her and causes anxiety when she feels at risk.

Ella recommends that others experiencing similar challenges talk as openly as they can about their experiences, as it has allowed her to “see things more clearly and feel proud of how well I’m now able to cope”.

The psychological impact of living with allergies

Although many people across the UK are living with food allergies, Ella believes the mental impact they can have is “underestimated” and that there’s a need to “raise awareness and normalise the psychological implications allergies can have”.

This is something charity Allergy UK is trying to do with its new campaign, called ‘It’s time the UK took allergy seriously’, which is calling for improved healthcare provision, awareness in service industries and improved care standards in education environments for those impacted by allergies.

Ella said that when she attends hospital clinics or is admitted in an emergency, her physical wellbeing is treated, but “there is little to no support for the psychological impact of living with allergies”.

When she does go out to eat, Ella said although most people understand that if she eats something she shouldn’t there’s the possibility of an anaphylactic reaction, what is harder to explain is the anxiety that it causes.

This is due to the “constant risk assessment” she has to undertake, including having to always check if a food is safe to eat, having to question waiting staff and then “putting my trust in them to keep me safe and sometimes not knowing if I will be able to eat at all”.

However, Ella added that Natasha’s Law - which requires food businesses to provide full ingredient lists and allergen labelling on foods prepackaged for direct sale - has “taken the first step” in making the life of those suffering from food allergies safer.

The law is named after Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who, at the age of 15, died after a severe allergic reaction to a sesame seed, after not being made aware that the seeds had been baked into the bread of a sandwich she had purchased from Pret a Manger.

Ella said the new law - which came into effect in October 2021 - “makes me feel a little bit safer – but I still know that Natasha’s story could have been mine or of any other people suffering from allergies”.