Stomach Aches as a Symptom of Stress

Children get a variety of aches and pains just like grown ups do, but “tummy aches” seem particularly common. Although the doctor may find a physical cause, this is the least common scenario; apart from constipation and food intolerance, medical reasons for this pain are rarely discovered. A gastroenterologist (stomach disorder specialist) may need to be part of the medical team in severe and unremitting cases. However, since food sensitivities often cause stomach pain, after the doctors’ examinations, a naturopathic assessment might be helpful too. In addition, emotional stress can cause stomach pain. In fact, once all medical and physical causes have been ruled out, it is generally assumed that the child’s stomach ache is either stress-induced or even imaginary. Since stress, upset, fear and pressure can cause all kinds of bodily symptoms (headaches, stomach aches, colds, sleep disorders and so on), it is safe to assume that a child who complains about stomach aches actually has them. Usually the pediatrician makes a diagnosis of “anxiety” or “stress.”  Of course parents are rarely surprised at such a diagnosis: they themselves already suspect emotional causes for the tummy aches since they so often occur in the year of the “hated” teacher or in the week of the spelling test. The only thing parents may wonder about is if the pain is real or if it is offered up as an escape clause.

The Body Speaks
Although some desperate children may take to lying about their pain, most who complain of stomach aches, head aches, dizziness and other stress symptoms are in fact describing exactly what they are feeling. Stress causes bodily changes in children and grownups alike and has been sighted in the medical literature as being the underlying cause for about 80% of all true medical conditions. Stress hurts both physically and emotionally. Each person will first experience stress in his or her genetically endowed vulnerable physical systems: some people will first experience stress in their stomachs, others in tight muscles, some in head pain, some in lowered immunity, some in increased anxiety and some in lowered mood. Untended stress can actually lead to disease as it penetrates deeper in the physical body and it can even lead to death.

For healthy youngsters stress rarely causes more than temporary physical discomfort or ailments such as colds, flu’s, diarrhea, constipation, headaches or migraines. However, the explanation “it’s just stress” does nothing to relieve any of these conditions. Whereas adults may be advised to seek professional counseling for the relief of their stress, children are rarely advised to do anything about it at all. Parents often “treat” stress-induced tummy aches by telling the child, “Don’t worry. It’s nothing. The doctor says you’re fine.”

Taking Stress Seriously
Such a strategy teaches children to ignore their initial symptoms of stress – the ones that go through their “vulnerable systems” as discussed above. This means that they may develop the habit of waiting until the stress has penetrated further, causing intense problems in their vulnerable physical/mental systems or moving into other systems of the body, creating symptoms and illnesses that can no longer be ignored. Indeed, some experts say that adults can reduce their chances of experiencing serious illness by paying attention to the body’s first signals that all is not well, rather than continuously ignoring minor signs and symptoms. Teaching kids this valuable health lesson involves refraining from minimizing the significance of their stress. It’s important NOT to use the phrase, “just stress.” Instead, parents can acknowledge the importance of stress in their child’s life. “Is your tummy hurting again Honey? I guess that means there is a part of you that is worried or bothered about something. Why don’t you close your eyes for a minute and ask your tummy what it is trying to tell you? If you listen carefully, your tummy will tell you what it’s upset about.” Even if the child cannot create a communication with his subconscious mind this way (but don’t be surprised – many children and adults can actually do this!) – the parent is teaching that the body and mind are linked and that stress is something to pay attention to. It is possible too, that the child doesn’t have to ask his tummy – he already KNOWS what it is bothering him. In that case, the parent can simply acknowledge that fear and upset happen in both the mind and the body and that we have to take care of both parts of ourselves.

Stress Management for Kids
Identifying the source of stress must be followed by an action plan. Sometimes it is possible to reduce the stress itself by making a changes in the real world (“How about taking one course less this term?” or “I’ll talk to the teacher and see how we can adjust things,”). Even when it isn’t possible to remove or adjust the stress, strengthening and calming the body is always an essential part of stress management. Helping the child sleep and eat better, exercise more, laugh more and relax more can reduce the harmful effects of stress. Taking the child for art therapy or talking therapy, naturopathic support or other professional support may provide profound relief. Allowing the child to talk about his stress can help prevent the stress from moving into the body where it becomes a “tummy ache.” Parents can use emotional coaching – naming, accepting and validating feelings – to help stress-proof their kids. In faith based homes, teaching children to talk directly to God about their problems and teaching them that God hears, cares and acts, can be an excellent stress management tool – as the research literature indicates. Of course, parents should model all of the interventions they want their kids to use and more. Children learn about stress management through watching you live your life in balance. Stress management can be a family project in which everyone takes on a minor lifestyle adjustment or specific relaxation strategy.  In fact, your own calm and happy mood is very helpful for your stressed-out youngster – and terrific for you as well!

Specific Tools for Stress-Relief
Here are some more ideas for helping your child move stress out of his or her body:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep daily. Sleep can have a significant impact on a child’s stress levels.
  • Exercising, doing yoga or playing sports often. Exercise helps all organs and body systems function better, and contributes to improved digestion and fewer pain syndromes.
  • Eating the right foods. Some foods (like processed foods or foods that are high in sugar or trans fat) can cause an increase in stress levels. Other foods (like whole grains or foods high in fiber and vitamins) can reduce stress. In general junky foods contribute to stress, while healthy foods reduce stress. Make sure your child is eating nutrient-rich food as much as possible.
  • Learning breathing techniques and meditation. Many simple breathing techniques can work wonders for stress. One simple technique you can teach you child is to think the word “in” while breathing in and think the word “out” while breathing out. Encourage the child to practice this technique before taking tests and examinations, before falling asleep, when anticipating some sort of stressful event, when in the dentist’s chair, when getting a needle or other medical procedure, when feeling overwhelmed or when feeling upset. This form of breath work is simple enough that even young children can do it. Older kids and teens, however, will benefit the most since they will be able to identify innumerable occasions for its use. Paying attention to the in and out of the breath is as calming to the nervous system as an anti-anxiety drug and has no negative side-effects!
  • Relaxation and stress-reduction MP3’s. There are stress-reduction CD’s and MP3’s that are especially designed for children. There are many different kinds including guided imagery, progressive relaxation, mindfulness training and binaural beats. Sometimes the child will need to experiment to see which product is most helpful. However, if the child is willing to use one of these products on a very regular basis (i.e. daily), he or she will obtain great benefits.

Consider Teaching Your Child EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
This simple acupressure tool can knock stress and pain right out of the body. There are lots of internet resources for learning how to use EFT and there are also many mental health professionals who are trained in the technique. EFT is meant to be a self-help tool. Older kids and adolescents will find it to be an easy way to help themselves feel less tense, happier, calmer, less anxious and less stressed. All of this can help reduce stomach aches. Moreover, EFT provides pain relief. Therefore children can be taught how to use EFT to release pain quickly and easily all by themselves.

Bach Flower Remedies
Bach Flower Therapy is a harmless water-based naturopathic treatment that can ease emotional distress and even prevent it from occurring in the future. There are different emotional issues that can lead to stomach aches. Sometimes a child is a perfectionist and really pushes him or herself in school. The remedy Rock Water will help him or her take a more relaxed, more balanced view of things. However, many other issues may be provoking stress: social rejection, too much schoolwork, fear of going away to camp, moving to a new house, dealing with a parent’s divorce and so on and so forth.  A Bach Flower Practitioner can help you pick the remedies that are most pertinent to your child’s situation. Meanwhile, here are some for you to consider: Agrimony (for a child who seems happy on the outside, but whose body carries the stress), Larch ( for fear of failing or other performance issues), Elm (for feelings of overwhelm), Mimulus (for fear and worry), White Chestnut (for repetitive thinking and obsessing over problems), Walnut ( for adjusting to change more easily). You can mix several remedies together in one treatment bottle. To do so, you fill a one-ounce Bach mixing bottle with water (a mixing bottle is an empty bottle with a glass dropper, sold in health food stores along with Bach Flower Remedies). Next, add two drops of each remedy that you want to use. Finally, add one teaspoon of brandy. The bottle is now ready to use. Give your child four drops of the mixture in any liquid (juice, water, milk, tea, etc.) four times a day (morning, midday, afternoon and evening). Remedies can be taken with or without food. Continue this treatment until the stress has dissipated. Start treatment again, if the stress returns. Eventually, the stress should diminish completely.

Other Considerations
Be careful not to accidentally reinforce sickness with too much attention.  Don’t give extra attention than normal to your child when he or she is feeling unwell. Give the sympathy and compassion necessary, but carry on with life as normal. Providing more tender attention in times of illness than in times of good health, can give your child the idea that being sick leads to more attention from you (and therefore he’ll enjoy being ill). Therefore, be careful to show tenderness and nurturing even when your child feels just fine! Then, when you help him or her through a tummy ache, it won’t seem like such a big treat that it’s worth being sick for.

Consider Professional Assessment
If your interventions have not helped sufficiently, consider setting up a meeting with a mental health professional for an assessment. Sometimes there is more going on than meets the eye and often, a trained professional can provide the best help.       

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