What Your Anxious Child’s Stomach Ache Could Really Mean

stomachIf your child complains of a stomach ache on the first day of school or during another major event, there’s a good chance it’s not something he or she ate. It’s more likely to be something your child is feeling, namely that thing called anxiety.

Anxiety can express itself in various ways, and abdominal pain is one parents – and physicians – see again and again.

“It’s very prevalent,” Pittsburg physician and head of Medical Coping Clinic Dr. Eva Szigethy told CBSNews. “[I]t’s one of the most common reasons that children and adolescents end up in their pediatrician’s office. It’s one of the most common reasons kids are missing school.”

Between 8 and 25 percent of all children suffer from ongoing stomach pain that comes with no discernible medical explanation, a condition docs call “functional abdominal pain.”

The term functional kicks in because the digestive system is functioning as it should, without any blockage, infection or disease. But that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real even if the cause stems from somewhere in your child’s head.

The Gut as ‘the Second Brain’

The stomach often reflects emotions, so much so that Columbia Professor Dr. Michael Gershon coined a phrase for the stomach as the “second brain.” The stomach is home to the enteric nervous system, which holds hundreds of millions of nerve cells, CBSNews explains.

You probably have experienced this “second brain” in action when you’re nervous and get the flittering feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Your child may be experiencing it when he or she is anxious and the belly is peppered with pain. Even if the nervousness or anxiety is all in your head, it can create a real sensation or pain in your abdominal area.

The Pain-Anxiety Cycle

If stomach aches and anxiety are regular factors in your child’s life, they may fall into the “chicken-or-the-egg” syndrome trying to figure out which came first. Regardless of which did come first, they can also start to fuel each other to create a vicious, ongoing cycle.

  1. Anxiety leads to
  2. Stomach pain which leads
  3. Greater anxiety which leads to
  4. Greater stomach pain which creates
  5. Greater anxiety which makes the
  6. Stomach hurt even more (and so on)

Possible Long-Term Consequences

Even if the stomach ache goes away after a bit of talk and relaxation techniques, recurring, unexplained stomach aches in children may lead to depression or anxiety down the road.

A study published in Pediatrics discovered that more than half, or 51 percent of people surveyed who experienced stomach pains as children ended up with some type of anxiety disorder sometime in their lives.

The study compared two sets of 8 to 17-year-old children from the same school, one group of 332 who suffered from unexplained stomach pain and another group of 147 who reported no abdominal issues. Researchers then contacted those same individuals as adults in their 20s to survey the frequency of depression and anxiety disorders.

Even if the abdominal pain eventually waned, study author Lynn Walker explained the anxiety disorders could persist. Of the children who did not experience abdominal issues as children, only 20 percent developed anxiety issues sometime in their lives.

On the depression side, 40 percent of those surveyed who suffered abdominal pain as children ended up with depression sometime in their lives. Of those who did not experience abdominal issues as children, only 16 percent later suffered from depression.

What Parents Can Do 

Taking your child’s complaint seriously is a must, as both anxiety and medical issues can lead to pain in the abdominal area. Repeated or especially severe complaints should merit a trip to the doctor, advises Dr. Jon LaPook, professor of medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

LaPook has firsthand experience of the dangerous consequences that can erupt if the child’s pain is dismissed from one of his own childhood incidents. Back in third grade, LaPook was complaining of a stomach ache but went to school anyway. He ended up collapsing halfway through the day and needing emergency surgery to take out his appendix.

Other causes behind stomach aches can include certain foods, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and, of course, certain stressful situations that create an ache induced by anxiety. Treatment for any of the stomach aches requires digging out the root cause of the pain and then working to correct the root cause.

If your child gets the OK from the doctor that no physical issues are to blame, experts agree the next move is sending your child to school, out to play or to engage in his or her lineup of regular scheduled activities.

“When children stay home from school and other activities, they get behind in schoolwork and peer relationships, which increases stress, which in turn increases their suffering,” according to study author Lynn Walker.

Tips for Anxiety Relief 

A number of short-term remedies may help bring immediate relief to your child, and more involved methods can help provide longer-term relief.

Short-term Anxiety Busters

Breathe! Breathing techniques are quick, easy-to-learn and can help your child de-stress on the spot. Diaphragmatic breathing, commonly called “belly breathing,” involves taking long, full breaths that work the diaphragm and make the belly rise and fall. Check out more tips in our post on Teaching Your Anxious Child to Calm Themselves with Their Breath.

Additional ways to bring near instant relief can be taking a quick break to listen to soothing music or giving your child your complete attention so he or she can cry, cringe, scream or otherwise share how they are feeling and why.

Longer-term Anxiety Helpers 

Longer-term solutions include ensuring the basic are being met with success. These include ensuring your child eats a healthy diet, gets adequate sleep, engages in plenty of exercise and takes time to unwind. Mindfulness and meditatioare two more ongoing, anxiety-busting strategies you and your child can incorporate into your daily routines. And if the stomach aches become too overwhelming, don’t be afraid to address the underlying issues with the help of a therapist.


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