Has your teenager been complaining of stomach pain, despite getting a clean bill of health from the doctor? Surprisingly, that’s not unusual these days. Licensed Clinical Social Worker Corinne Humphries at Orange County Health Psychologists says she has seen chronic teenage stomach pain much more often lately in her practice, while other experts estimate that 9-15% of all kids experience functional abdominal pain disorders that can’t be explained medically. So what else could be the cause?
To answer this question, we first need to understand the gut-brain connection. Stress can affect teens in a way we might not expect — through their bodies. Here’s a look at why teenage stomach pain is on the rise now that school is back in session, and what adults can do to help.
The relationship between stress and the gut
All of us – not just teens — may experience stomach issues in times of stress. That’s because our digestive system and brain are connected. In other words, the nerves in our stomach and intestines respond to the same hormones and neurotransmitters as our brain does. What’s more, says Humphries, “these are the same chemicals used in medications for depression and anxiety. So when they get out of balance, it makes sense that the body won’t feel quite normal.” This mirroring of our brain chemistry is why some refer to the gut as our “second brain.”
Another way stress can be connected to stomach pain is by tempting us to “stress eat.” While things like ice cream or pizza may be comforting at the time, they’re also high in lactose, which could lead to painful bloating or stomach cramps.
Finally, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), can cause excessive gas, diarrhea, and other uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms. IBS is diagnosed after medical causes are ruled out, tends to run in families, and can be triggered by stress.
Looking at the ways stress can cause stomach pain as an example, we could say that the body can “hold” the content of our psyche. When we don’t express how we’re feeling, we can internalize that stress. With nowhere else to go, it can show up physically.
Humphries says teens who have been stressed yet unable to communicate with friends during quarantine could experience physical symptoms. “Since they can’t talk about it, their body will express it instead,’” she explains. In that case, the best thing to do is figure out the source of the stress in order to deal with it head-on.
These days, says Humphries, teen’s usual stressors have been made worse by the pandemic.
“For a lot of people I’ve been seeing, the stress has to do with going back into a social environment,” she notes. “They think, ‘You mean I have to talk to people again? I have to go back to school where people are going to judge me?’ I’d say these are typical teen anxieties, but because they’ve spent so much time in quarantine, and start asking the questions ‘How do I do this? What if they think I’m strange? What if I don’t make friends?’”
Ways to relieve stress-related teenage stomach pain
Mindfulness-based techniques and other tools can reduce stress levels when used over time. Here are a few your teen can try in order to get a handle on their stress and its secondary stomach symptoms:
- Yoga not only will improve your teen’s physical fitness, but researchers say it also has been shown to improve mood even more than a standard PE class. Find a good free class on YouTube and see if your teen wants to start practicing with you.
- Meditation, which is becoming popular among teens, is a great way to both increase concentration and regulate emotions. Suggest an app such as Calm or Headspace if they are unfamiliar with the practice.
- Relaxation techniques like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation can help in a pinch and can be found by a quick Google search.
- Eating plant-based foods that are high in fiber can support gut health.
- Regular exercise helps decrease inflammation in the body.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy can help your teen identify connections between their thoughts and behavior in order to change their emotional state.
Therapy, in fact, can be one of the biggest game-changers. Assuming your teen is open to it, the results can be transformative. Just keep in mind that they need to be willing to do the work.
“Ultimately, therapy is guided self-help,” says Humphries. “The clients still have to go home and do the homework and practice the skills. Otherwise, it won’t be as productive and they won’t see as much change.”
Call us for support
Note to psychology professionals: The need for mental health services has significantly increased, and as such, we are hiring new providers. Orange County Health Psychologists welcomes applicants from licensed professionals of all backgrounds who have a passion for excellence in mental health care. For more information, see our Careers page.
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists
About Cori Humphries, LCSW
Corinne “Cori” Humphries is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with experience working with clients ranging in age from young children to older adults. Cori specializes in assisting children, adolescents, and young adults process and heal from traumatic events. Through humor, empathy and compassion, Cori aids in setting achievable goals, developing helpful skills, and empowering patients to seek their fullest potential. Her other areas of specialization include anxiety, depression, coping skills, family conflict, relationship issues, ADHD, and self-esteem.