Everyone has to deal with stress. Fortunately, people and animals are equipped with the tools they need to fight or run away, depending on which strategy seems most likely to succeed. This is called the fight-or-flight response. This response does not just kick in when some extremely stressful situation is imminent.
The day-to-day stress that people deal with — worrying about bills, worrying about interacting with peers in school — can trigger a variation of this response. It is less intense, but it lasts longer. And the same biological reactions that would give a person extra strength in dangerous situations can produce symptoms when facing ordinary stress: rapid heart rate; feeling tense, nervous or queasy; getting a stomachache; and having sweaty palms.
A good way to explain this phenomenon to children is to ask them if they have ever gotten butterflies in their stomach before a soccer game or when they had to speak in front of their classmates.
Stress causes abdominal pain when the nerves in a person’s intestinal tract overreact to the normal process of digesting food and pushing waste out of the body. Two additional facts are important regarding stress-induced abdominal pain. First, the situation that causes the stress does not always occur when the person is having pain. Second, even though stress is the trigger, the pain is very real.
Dealing with stress-induced abdominal pain is trickier than managing constipation or lactose intolerance. In general, eating a healthful diet is important, and in some people, taking probiotics can help reduce pain. These other steps can help:
●Learn some deep breathing techniques, which have been shown to help people calm down. There are CDs specifically for children that can help walk you through the process of breathing and then relaxing your body. Many yoga classes also provide breathing training for older chldren.
●Try to figure out where the stress is coming from by talking to your child about school, friends, home, etc. Talk to your pediatrician to get guidance on how to address the problem.
●Consult mental health professionals if stress-induced stomach aches do not respond to suggestions from your pediatrician.
Bennett is a pediatrician in Washington, author of “Max Archer, Kid Detective: The Case of the Recurring Stomachaches” and a regular contributor to KidsPost. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes a blog on common pediatric problems.