Mind Over Allergy

The pain suffered in a personal tug of war with allergy is like the pain of any struggle – partly physical and party psychological. Anxiety, depression and fatigue may be directs of an allergic reaction somewhere in the body. Or they may result from the many aggravations of dealing with a chronic allergy: sticking to a restricted diet.

Vigilance against airborne allergy triggers. The fear that no matter how careful you are, you’ll get zapped anyway. The sense of alienation from your non-allergic spouse, family or coworkers. Resentment over your bad luck. And above all, the desire to lead a normal life again. Those are the ”effects of the effect,” as one highly allergic person put it.

And easing the psychological and emotional effects of being allergic goes a long way toward successful, drug free relief from the allergies themselves. In the case of asthma, for instance, one doctor observed that people who have uncontrolled apprehension – panic over breathing problems, fear of recurring symptoms and so on – tend to overuse steroids and other asthma medication.

And they're more likely to be frequently hospitalized for their condition, adds Jerald F. Dirks, Psy.D., former chief of clinical psychology at the National Jewish Hospital and Research Center and the National Asthma Center in Denver.

Unstressing Your Life

The impact of stress on health is undeniable. Stress is not a disease, however, but a normal element in the weather of life. It's like rain. With too little, life is barren. With too much, you get flooded. For people with allergies, the stress clouds hang a bit thicker and lower than usual.

Along with the usual stresses of everyday life – temperamental children, money worries, job snafus – people with allergies have additional concerns. Changing your habits or diet to side step allergy triggers is fraught with stress. Plus there’s the strain sometimes created by trying to get other people to accommodate you.

”The other people you live with may resent being asked to go outside to spray their hair, or having to remember not to polish their shoes around you,” says Dr. Bell. All that stress may have a direct effect on the immune system, aggravating allergic reactions.

”Any period of stress may weaken the immune system so that you react more easily to foods or chemicals,” explained Dr. Bell. ”But if you have yourself in better control of stress, when something does happens – when you encounter an allergy trigger – your symptoms won’t get as bad. ”In other words, managing stress helps you weather allergic encounters.

Beating the Allergy Blues

Actually, a little anxiety over allergy is useful – it motivates an individual to do something about the problem, rather than just roll up his or her sleeve for a shot or swallow a pill. Too much anxiety, on the other hand, can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the illness, to the point where you begin to neglect the other important aspect of life – family and friends, career goals, travel plans, hobbies.

In the case of food allergies in particular, over anxiety can lead to what one doctor calls ”food neurosis” – an all consuming obsession with what you can and cannot eat, and paranoia about eating away from home. ”Allergic people can easily slip into the me versus them attitude if they're not careful,” says Iris R. Bell, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatrist in San Francisco.”

Many people begin to look at their environment as their enemy. Soon, they feel that everything they eat or breathe might make them sick. And it's a very difficult position not to get yourself into, because it's true that certain things can make you sick,” she acknowledges.

”But too much worry over allergies can make allergies worse,” Dr. Bell continued. ”That may explain why some people feel worse when they first begin to pay attention to their diet or environment. One theory is that they develop what psychologist call a ’continued response.’

After one or more symptoms causing encounters with an identified allergen, they may break out from simply looking at chocolate, or start to feel sick when someone nearby reaches for a cigarette.” The secret to avoid ”worrying yourself sick” is to learn to cope with allergies realistically, rather than to let yourself slip into the role of a lonely exile.

And coping is easier if you avoid focusing on being a ”patient.” Granted, you may feel like a patient if you have to record every mouthful of food you eat or if you’re following a Rotary Diet. Nonetheless, says Dr. Bell, you should try your best to shift away from the mindset of ”I’m sick” – toward ”I’m getting well.”

”Some people say, ”I’m sick today, and until I’m well I can’t do this or that,’” continued Dr. Bell. ”That attitude can lead to a terrible cycle in which you never do anything, and then you feel worse about yourself because you aren’t doing anything you enjoy.”

In other words, allergies can exact quite a toll in terms of damage to self image – but only if you let them. ”I don't expect people to deny that they’re sick,” says Dr. Bell. ”But on the other hand, I’ve seen people who focused so much on being allergic that it become their whole identity – and a way to avoid life’s stresses.”


”An important approach I use to alleviate stress is some form of relaxation therapy,” says Dr. Bell. ”There are a variety of approaches. One is imagery, in which I tell people to imagine themselves in a safe environment whenever they find themselves exposed to a threatening food or chemical.

That takes advantage of what the mind can do for the body; a massage is sent from the brain to the rest of the body, putting you in a stronger biological state. ”The relaxation method you choose is not all that important, as long as it works for the individual,” she adds. ”All achieve the same basic goal – reducing stress,” They do that, she explained, by putting your body in state that is the exact opposite of how it operates when you feel tense and under stress.

Positive Thinking

We spoke to a young man who has been highly allergic to many things from early childhood on. He has learned to suppress allergic reactions at the first inking of symptoms by concentrating very, very hard and saying to himself, ”I will not react.” He calls it, willing the allergy away.” And it works! There’s nothing magical about it, the mind can effect the body.

You can actually lower your body’s levels of chemical mediators (histamine and other allergy provoking substances) by your mental attitude – how you look at things and how you handle stress.” ”It comes down to a matter of how much control you have,” says Dr. Bell. ”Some people are extremely good at using their minds to control their bodies.

For them these techniques are ideal. Most of us fall into a range – we can be at our best if we’re relaxing in some way, plus watching our diet and perhaps doing one or two others things. ”For most people, I see stress control as an additional aid. If you slide off your diet, it will help you recover. Or you may not slip quite as much or quite as fast.”

Exercise Can Calm You Down – and Cheer You Up

Regular exercise may be an additional way to defuse stress in your life – and reduce your allergy symptoms at the same time. A study by Shea Graham Kosch, Ph.D., of the Department of Community Health and Family Medicine, University of Florida, and an associate at the Southern Academy of Clinical Nutrition, compared anxiety levels and overall health of two groups of people.

Those in the first group either jogged 15 minutes a day or walked briskly for 30 minutes a day. People in second group did nothing more strenuous than play golf, garden or participate in other activities considered to be relatively low in exertion.

The people who exercised regularly reported less anxiety and fewer medical symptoms than those who did not exercise. ”These findings imply that exercise ... [is] capable of exerting a powerful influence on adoptions to [stress],” conclude the researchers (Stress, Spring, 1982).

There are definite reasons why exercise reduces anxiety. ”A hallmark of anxiety is the excessive, prolonged and useless secretion of adrenaline [a powerful hormone],” says Jerome Marmorstein, M.D., from Santa Barbara, California . ”Use of exercise to improve conditioning – even just walking – is the only natural release for that.

It even helps to reduce the adrenaline buildup in the first place,” he says. ”Exercise is a balance factor. It promotes conservation of energy and an overall reduction of chronic anxiety. You feel better mentally and experience a sense of emotional well being.”

So if allergies have you feeling depressed, exercise can give you a psychological lift. ”Just minor, non-vigorous exercise like walking a block can produce measurable, beneficial psychological changes,” says Ronald Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D., a California psychiatrist neurologist.

A Journal Helps Keep Allergies in Proper Perspective

Some people, of course, have so many allergies or are so highly sensitive that in spite of all efforts to ”buck up,” they still have days – or weeks – when they feel sorry for themselves. For them, Dr. Bell has found that keeping a personal journal can help put things in perspective.

”Keeping a journal can be very helpful and supportive, like a sympathetic friend with whom you can talk everything out. I’ve used it myself,” says Dr. Bell, who has some allergies. ”By journal, I don’t mean a documentation of every symptoms you have, although, certainly symptoms are part of it.

But by writing down how you’re feeling amidst the events that are swirling around you, you have something to which to return later, to look at yourself when you were last feeling down, when it seems there was no sky above. Then read the next entries and see how you got out of it. And notice how quickly you got better.

Because during a depressed period, you may feel like you’re always sick, when in fact reactions may last only a few hours or less. ”You can also refers to your journal when you can't remember the last time you felt well,” adds Dr. Bell. ”It corrects the kind of negative thinking that depressed people fall into, the all or nothing view of things. It reminds you that you felt good once, and you’ll feel good again.”

Whatever psychological resources you choose – imagery, medication, exercise, a journal – all help you enjoy your life in spite of your allergies. You may even find yourself laughing at some of the absurd problems created by allergies. ”When a person begins to look at everything as a threat to their health, they lose their sense of humor. And a sense of humor is very important,” says Dr. Bell. ”I really believe in laughter as a way of treatment.”