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What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of allergic reactions

Fear of allergic reactions

7 min read
Justin Trout, LPC, QMHP

By Justin Trout, LPC, QMHP

Reviewed by Taylor Newendorp

Oct 14, 2022

Possibly related to:

Fear of having an allergic reaction involves intense and excessive concerns about eating certain foods or encountering certain situations in the environment (for example, seeing a bee). People who tend to suffer from this subtype of OCD find that these fears are extremely distressing and anxiety-provoking. People with allergy themes in OCD tend to think of worst-case scenarios that involve food allergies. Because of this, these feelings can seem very real, and people can convince themselves that they are allergic to food or environmental factors, without any real evidence to suggest it. 

A good example of this would be somebody feeling like they are allergic to peanuts, even though there has been no history of having this allergy. They visit a friend who has peanuts in a bowl on the table. This person may experience distress and need to leave. Because of this, they probably feel like they are sweating, or their face is going numb, when in actuality, they are probably just experiencing anxiety due to their fears, instead of actual symptoms of an allergic reaction. 

Somebody who experiences a fear of having an allergic reaction will experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, worries, or images that lead to significant distress and anxiety. These thoughts are called obsessions. When people have these intrusive thoughts, they attempt to get rid of them by engaging in compulsions. Compulsions are the actions, both mental and physical, done in an attempt to suppress the intrusive thoughts, relieve anxiety, or prevent a feared outcome. 

People who experience these themes of OCD will often research all the possible signs of allergic reactions. They may constantly check for physical symptoms that they may experience if they were to have an allergic reaction. These people may ask their doctors or schedule doctor visits often for allergy tests or to check for signs of allergic reactions. 

Fear of allergic reaction – Common Obsessions

  • What if I eat something and I have an allergic reaction? 
  • What if my hands swell? 
  • What if I die? 
  • What if my face is going numb? 
  • What if my heart races? 
  • What if I become allergic to it, despite having no evidence that I’ve been allergic to it before? 
  • Could I be having an allergic reaction and not know it?
  • Are those hives?
  • Do I have a cold, or am I having a potentially severe allergic reaction?
  • I’ve never had this food before—what if I’m allergic?
  • I’ve never been to that place before—what if there are plants I’m allergic to?

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Common triggers

People with obsessive fears of allergic reactions are often triggered by situations that involve interactions with specific food/environmental factors, as well as new foods or environments. Individuals may avoid seeking situations where certain foods are presented, or going to the park for fear of a bee sting, for instance. People with this fear might often be triggered by hearing about somebody else who is allergic to certain things. 

Triggers for people who are afraid of allergic reactions include:

  • Being near certain foods that commonly cause allergic reactions. 
  • Seeing people who have allergic reactions to certain situations 
  • Hearing about allergic reactions
  • Trying new foods or going to a new restaurant
  • Feeling slightly off when eating/drinking something 
  • Any physical symptoms/sensations that are possible signs of an allergic reaction (shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sore/itchy throat, itchy skin, etc.)
  • Seeing something, like a bee or dander in the air
  • Traveling to a new area 

How can I tell if I have a fear of allergic reactions or if I am actually having an allergic reaction to certain foods/situations? 

I’m glad you asked. To determine if you may have OCD, you have to first understand the cycle of OCD. 

The OCD cycle is composed of: 1) intrusive thoughts, feelings, images, or urges, also known as obsessions; 2) anxiety or distress that comes as a result; 3) compulsions performed to relieve the distress and anxiety brought on by the obsessions. Understanding this cycle can help you distinguish OCD from other conditions. Something to keep in mind is that if you are feeling an intense urgency to know something immediately and with certainty, that is a red flag that OCD may be at work.

Intrusive thoughts can and do happen to everyone. Most people who do not have OCD are able to brush these thoughts off rather easily. However, people with OCD struggle to do this. They often believe that if they think something, it must mean something. This is where OCD holds its power. People with a fear of allergic reactions need to learn to sit in the uncertainty they feel around foods, environmental factors, and physical sensations. They may “feel” like they are experiencing a reaction, when it is actually anxiety in response to obsessional fear.

Common compulsions

When people with a fear of allergic reactions experience these intrusive thoughts, images, feelings or urges that can cause significant distress, they will engage in compulsions. 

Compulsions can look different for every individual. Compulsions are behaviors or mental acts that one does to alleviate the distress and discomfort caused by intrusive thoughts, or to prevent a feared outcome from occurring. 

Compulsions may provide the sufferer with temporary relief but do nothing to keep obsessions from returning again and again. Performing compulsions often inadvertently strengthens obsessions and fears, reinforcing the idea that obsessions posed an actual threat or danger. 

Here are some examples of common compulsions often performed by people with a fear of allergic reactions: 

  • Researching symptoms on the internet
  • Seeking reassurance, such as “Are you sure I’m not allergic?” or “Do I seem like I’m having a reaction?”
  • Going to the doctor every time something doesn’t feel right after eating
  • Avoiding certain foods/restaurants/gatherings for fear of encountering triggers 
  • Avoiding reading or hearing about allergic reactions and other side effects
  • Checking body to see if they feel different or sick

How to treat OCD fear of allergic reactions

OCD centered on a fear of having allergic reactions can be very difficult, but there’s hope. This fear is treatable by doing exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy with an OCD specialist. We exist! 

ERP is the gold standard treatment for OCD and many other anxiety disorders. It is backed by decades of clinical research proving its effectiveness and shows promising results within 12-25 sessions on average. With ERP, you will be able to teach your brain that your fears and intrusive thoughts don’t have any real meaning or pose any threat. You can also learn ways to sit in the discomfort of unpleasant feelings. 

In ERP, you’re gradually and safely exposed to the thoughts and situations that are likely to trigger intrusive thoughts and anxiety. With your therapist’s guidance and support, you will learn how to resist the urge to respond to feelings of discomfort and anxiety with compulsions. By doing this over time, you learn that you are able to tolerate anxiety and you will feel more confident in your ability to sit with uncertainty and discomfort. 

Examples of possible exposures done to treat a fear of allergic reactions may include: 

  • Looking at a picture of food that has peanuts or shellfish in it. 
  • Trying food that you fear you may be allergic to. 
  • Cook a recipe with ingredients you have fears about. 
  • Go to a park and or outside and sit near a bee or sniff some flowers. 
  • Write a script or a complete loop tape about a scenario in which you have an allergic reaction and experience a negative side effect.

As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP.

We look forward to working with you.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp, M.A., LCPC, has specialized in the treatment of OCD since 2011. He is a former clinical supervisor for The Center for Anxiety and OCD at AMITA Behavioral Health Hospital in Illinois, and is currently the Regional Clinical Director for NOCD.

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