Mental health IS physical health; it is as simple as that. That is all too apparent when we take a look at the ways anxiety can cause physical symptoms. You may think of anxiety as racing thoughts, or a pit in your stomach; however, more severe anxiety has a long list of ways that it can impact a person physically. Anxiety puts a person’s body into fight or flight mode and in this stage anxiety can manifest itself in a variety of unexpected physical symptoms.
As a person who has experienced varying levels of anxiety throughout my life I know that I was personally very comforted by the knowledge that some of the things that I was physically experiencing could be tied to my anxiety. It helped me realize just how connected our minds are to our bodies and that taking care of one of them was just as important as taking care of the other. Now if I begin to experience some of the symptoms that I know happen to my body when I am anxious I know that I need to remove myself from a situation, or practice some much needed self care.
If you suspect that your child may be struggling with anxiety it may be helpful to stay on the lookout for these symptoms. If you notice that they are complaining about some of the things listed below it could be time to have a conversation. Chat with them about how anxiety can physically impact a person and share with them some of the signs. Tell them if they are feeling that way, they should come and talk to you because you want to help them. Let them know that understanding how their body responds to anxiety can help show them when they need to ask you for help.
Even if you don’t think your child is anxious this can be a good conversation. Let them know that you had no idea but were reading earlier that “XYZ could be caused by anxiety.” This simple conversation can give them empowering knowledge and reinforce that their mental health is a conversation that you are always open to having.
This is one of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety, and it is one that you may be able to pick up on if your child does not want to talk about their anxiety. If your child constantly complains of an upset stomach, feeling nauseous, or goes to the bathroom a lot they could be struggling with anxiety. Anxiety can make a person feel physically sick and can even cause them to throw up or experience diarrhea.
It is not only their stomach that can be impacted but also the amount of times they use the bathroom to urinate. Anxiety (often at night) can make a child feel like they really need to use the bathroom to pee and then once they get there, little comes out. If you notice an uptick in bathroom trips, or complaints about an upset stomach that could be a sign that your child may be struggling.
2. Tension related ailments
When we are anxious our whole body tenses up. This tension is not good for us and causes issues throughout our bodies. Some things to be on the lookout for are; jaw, or ear pain, or ringing ears (anxiety and the tension associated with it can cause pain in a child’s TMJ area), sore and tight muscles, and tension headaches.
If your child mentions that they are feeling unexpectedly sore or that they have random pain in their shoulders/back/legs/etc. for no clear reason such as an increase in or new physical activity then it could be a sign that they are struggling with anxiety. Your child may not be able to recognize the difference between jaw and teeth pain too so if they complain of either of those be sure to keep an eye out.
3. Chest related symptoms
If you think about the age old saying “getting something off your chest” that shows just how connected a person’s chest is to anxiety. When we're anxious about something we may feel a weight sitting directly on our chests. An anxious child may experience a tightness in their chest or even heart palpitations.
Anything that has to do with the heart can make an already anxious child feel even more anxious. Health related anxiety is very common and feeling these physical symptoms in their chest could cause them further stress. This sign in particular is an important one to mention so your child understands that they should tell you it's happening but it's a common sign. Anxious minds can really spiral and understanding this typical sign can help your child start to take control of their anxiety.
4. A change in their normal routine
Last week we talked about how mental health challenges can impact both a child’s appetite and sleep schedule. Anxiety can play a huge factor in both of these things. An anxious child may lay down after a long day hoping to get some much needed rest and find that their mind is racing to the point that they can’t fall asleep or may even be “jolted awake” by their anxiety. An anxious child may get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night and then find it hard to go back to sleep because they are already stressing about what the next day will entail.
Another symptom associated with anxiety is that a child may begin to obsess over getting “enough hours of sleep.” The thought of not getting the sleep they need is almost overwhelming to them. If you notice your child up at odd hours of the night or complaining of being tired/not getting enough sleep that could be a sign that you should check in on them.
Food and their desire to eat/not eat could also indicate that your child may be struggling. If you notice that they are telling you they aren’t hungry more than normal or nothing “sounds good” to them this could be caused by anxiety. Like we mentioned, anxiety can make a child feel very nauseous and almost unsettled by the idea of eating.
5. Other/Miscellaneous symptoms
Each child is going to experience anxiety very differently. Below are a list of some common ways anxiety can impact a child physically that did not fit into any of the above categories:
Tingly face and body sensations
Excess sweat (especially on their hands)
An excess of yawning in a short period of time
This is by no means a complete list but these are some of the more common signs that are associated with anxiety.
Again every child is different but if you notice some of the signs listed above, have a conversation. We know that it can be scary but by giving them words like anxiety and showing them how connected their mental and physical health is can start to lay a healthy foundation of recognizing and addressing their mental health struggles. You want them to know that you know how exhausting anxiety can be and that you take it and any other mental health struggles that they have very seriously.