Welcome to part four of my Surprising Child Anxiety Triggers series! Today’s trigger is gastrointestinal distress, or “upset stomach.”
The stomach flu is, in my opinion, the worst (non-serious) thing ever. The worst. Worse than stubbing your pinkie toe or getting ten paper cuts. Worse than reality TV. The worst. In fact, like many children with Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, many of my compulsions were done to prevent throwing up. Gastrointestinal distress is so horrible I’ve separated it from other illnesses and given it its own post.
If an anxious child feels sick to her stomach, two separate things can cause her to panic:
First, if she’s afraid of the stomach flu/food poisoning, she’s likely to panic if she thinks that’s what’s causing her discomfort. In fact, she might panic even if she knows she’s only sick because she ate too much or too fast, because feeling like she’s going to throw up is terrifying no matter what. (This is especially true for children who are afraid of losing control or embarrassing themselves.) If your child or student is specifically worried about GI symptoms, teach her how to minimize her risk of upset stomach by eating slowly and calmly. A coach or a cognitive-behavioral therapist can help create a plan to help overcome fear of stomach upset. In the meantime, have your child or student practice slow, steady breathing, and help her minimize her discomfort by addressing the possible cause. Note: anxiety can cause or increase nausea, so address anxiety symptoms first or concurrently.
Second, like many of the triggers on this list, GI distress can mimic anxiety symptoms. Both panic and GI distress can cause nausea, stomach pain, lightheadedness, and increased heart rate. Anything that mimics panic can cause panic. In part, this is because panic is terrifying, so thinking that you’re going to panic can …make you panic. To combat this, encourage children to relax into their panic with complete acceptance. Say, “you’re having a panic attack. It’s very common, and it can’t hurt you. It’ll be over soon even if you don’t do anything.” Remind anxious children to breath slowly (without gasping or hyperventilating) and simply allow the panic to rise and then fall. Accepting panic is extremely difficult, even for adults, but it’s extremely effective.
Coming soon: how to coach a child through a panic attack.