Treatment Guide

National Jewish Health Expert Discusses Psychological Aspect of Living with Life Threatening Food Allergies

Gluten Free Works Author Jennifer Leeson

Mary Klinnert National Jewish Health

Mary Klinnert, PhD at National Jewish Health

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mary Klinnert, PhD at National Jewish Health. Mary is an expert in child psychology and has numerous previous research studies on the effects of asthma on mental health.  She started her career mostly focusing on asthma, but in recent years, has turned much of her attention to the psychological aspects of living with life threatening food allergies.

While meeting with Mary, she briefed me on a study she is conducting on the psychological aspects of food allergies and how this study differs from the majority of previous studies that mostly focus on quality of life issues related to living with food allergies.  The hope of Mary and the rest of the team is to get to the root of what is happening to families that sometimes contributes to deeper psychological problems, such as overwhelming anxiety and fear.

In my experience with families affected by food allergies, problems of overwhelming anxiety and fear can interfere on a level that goes beyond quality of life issues like ordering in restaurants. In my practice, I have observed that overwhelming anxiety can create emotional suffering that prevents people from experiencing day to day joy. An example of this would be a parent who is unable to find joy in their child because the parent is so concerned about the child having an anaphylactic reaction.

While I cannot disclose the details of the study as it is still underway, I can tell you that it focuses on understanding two different dimensions.  The first dimension is on how well families are managing the food allergy (i.e. meal planning, safety planning, etc.) and the other dimension is on emotional aspects of having a food allergy. In the end, the hope is that the results of this study will give insights into helping families create a balanced life, one in which the food allergy is well managed as well as managing the level of anxiety being experienced by child or parents so that it doesn’t interfere with enjoying life.

My meeting with Mary was eye opening for me as she gave me new insights into helping families living with food allergies.  The most important lesson I took away is that while it is of the upmost importance to have a clear understanding of the dangers of food allergies, it is at the same time important to recognize that having food allergies doesn’t have to define a person or their families. It is a problem to be dealt with and to learn to work around.  There will always be risks when living with food allergies and there is also risk in so many other things that we do, and we do them everyday, such as driving a car.  Be cautious, pay attention, be prepared, but don’t avoid the world.

This interview helped validate the work I am doing with people affected by food allergies. Helping people learn to live a full life despite food allergies is essential.  Throughout the interview, Mary emphasized the importance of balance. This is something I stress everyday with the people who come to me for help.  Excessive worry and fear will likely cause everyone in a family increased stress, anxiety and unhappiness.  While some anxiety and worry is helpful and likely essential in being effective in managing safety, when taken to the extreme, it can prevent everyone in the family from reaching their fullest potential.  I am grateful to Mary for her hard work and dedication to really understanding the psychological effects food allergies can have on children and their families.  This will help those of us trying to help those affected by food allergies have a deeper and more accurate understanding of what’s really going on in order to affect positive, healthy changes.


Author Information: Jennifer Leeson, Denver, CO
Denver Gluten-free Examiner at
Jennifer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an expert on changing negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease last October, she learned there was more to transforming her life around food beyond knowing what to eat and what not to eat. There were unexpected social, emotional, and behavioral challenges that arose. Since learning how to cope with these obstacles herself, she has begun teaching others how to cope effectively with the barriers that interfere with successfully changing one’s entire lifestyle around food. You can reach Jennifer at her e-mail address


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