Tummy Troubles: Could It Be Back-to-School Stress?

Learn the signs and when to call your pediatrician

A young girl with pigtails sits on the ground with a look on her face that she doesn't feel well as she holds her stomach. SD Health Magazine

Learn the signs and when to call your pediatrician

Stress and anxiety have been linked to gastrointestinal (GI) issues in people of all ages, but for kids and teens, something like an upcoming test or uncomfortable social interaction can trigger severe abdominal pain and unpleasant symptoms like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. 

“Kids feel stressed just like adults do, and the start of the school year is a very common time to see it,” says Christopher Price, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo

The GI tract, which is modulated by the nervous system, is very complex. Things like stress, anxiety and lack of sleep can affect the way the GI tract functions. Also, many of the neurotransmitters that control moods — the same ones that control pain and digestion — are produced in the gut. 

Tummy pain is real

The first step to getting to the bottom of your child’s GI issues is acknowledging that their pain is real, though many children won’t bring it up because they’re afraid that you’ll think they’re exaggerating or making it up. 

“When we’re in states of stress our brain can inadvertently interpret signals coming from our GI tract as pain when there’s really nothing there. That’s not to say they’re making up the pain,” Dr. Price says. “They’re truly feeling the pain. It’s just that their brain is incorrectly manifesting these signals as a perception of pain.” 

What are other signs of stress?

Not sure if it’s stress? Look for other signs, like:

  • Changes in behavior and activity level
  • Sleeping and eating more or less than usual
  • Seeming withdrawn or down

You may not even realize there’s a problem until you start asking questions. If you feel that stress is affecting your child’s quality of life, consult their pediatrician. 

“It can be difficult, but you know your child best,” says Dr. Price.  

What are other causes of stomach pain?

Stomach pain is one of the most common complaints among children and teens and the causes vary. If it’s not stress, it could be indigestion or constipation. Home remedies can help but if stomach aches are a frequent problem, talk with your pediatrician.

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This content appeared in San Diego Health, a publication in partnership between Scripps and San Diego Magazine that celebrates the healthy spirit of San Diego.

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