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9 Surprising Physical Symptoms of Childhood Anxiety

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Sometimes our bodies realize our mental health struggles before our brains do. Though we tend to think of mental illness as, well… mental, the reality is mental illnesses can affect our bodies physically. This can be especially true for kids struggling with anxiety.

Children with anxiety may experience some physical symptoms we typically associate with physical illnesses — like stomachaches and headaches, for example. It’s important to be aware of these physical signs of childhood anxiety because more and more children are affected by anxiety every day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the U.S. alone, over 4.4 million children between ages 3 and 17 have diagnosed anxiety.

We wanted to know what other surprising physical symptoms people experienced as kids due to anxiety, so we asked our mental health community to share their experiences with us. If you can relate, you’re not alone. 

Here’s what our community shared:

1. Stomachaches and/or Vomiting

One of the most common symptoms of childhood anxiety is abdominal pain, or stomachaches, which can sometimes lead to vomiting. This is because the brain and gut are highly connected.

“If we think of the brain as a stereo receiver and speakers, it helps us understand how the gut-brain axis works. The gut reports pain to the spine, which relays the pain signals to the brain,” Nicole Sawangpont Pattamunch, Ph.D., director of general GI and GI education director at Seattle Children’s hospital said. “Children under stress, whether it be physical or emotional, will often have the volume dial turned up on their stereo receiver. How the brain receives and interprets the pain signal is highly tied to our emotional state.”

Awful stomachaches to the point where the nurse called my mother and said I was faking. I would be on the floor before school with such awful pains in my stomach. I went to so many stomach doctors and was told it was IBS, but now that I know how I feel when my anxiety is bad, I know that the doctors were wrong. None of them took a minute to think it could have been anxiety. — Amber A.

I vomit when I have severe anxiety. Did as a child growing up. — Deborah A.

A symptom of anxiety I had as a child was stomach aches. It got to a point where I needed ultrasounds to see why my stomach hurt, but as an adult I see it was because of anxiety. — Savannah W.

2. Headaches

Like adults, children can experience headaches as a result of anxiety or heightened stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), migraines and chronic daily headaches are also common in people who live with anxiety disorders.

Debilitating headaches that would last hours a day, nearly every day from middle school throughout high school. I got used to them because I had to, but they made everything so much harder to do. My mom would ask my doctors about them and they always blew them off, leaving me feeling like I was making them up and that they weren’t really as bad as they were. I never knew if they were tension headaches or migraines or what to call them. — Kimberly B.

3. Dizziness or Fainting

Dizziness in children is often linked to dehydration, but can also be due to anxiety. According to the Boston Children’s Hospital, a child who feels faint or dizzy might use terms like, “woozy,” “foggy” or “cloudy” to describe what they are experiencing.

Dizziness. I used to get so dizzy and convince myself I was going to faint. — Tracy K.

Was dizzy often and always scared. — Kellee S.

4. Heart Palpitations or Chest Pain

In adults, chest pain is often linked to cardiac problems, but in children, less than 2% of patients receive a cardiac diagnosis for their chest pain, according to a 2012 study. In the study, researchers found children with noncardiac chest pain reported higher levels of anxiety sensitivity.

Heart palpitations. I think every single time I’d have anxiety I’d feel my heart rev into gear and then go into full-blown panic. — Kristi A.

Left me with reoccurring chest pain throughout my adult life as an adult with anxiety. — Justine H.

Chest pain/heart palpitations and headaches/dizziness. I didn’t know it was anxiety at the time so I always thought I was going to die because of a heart issue or something. Missed so much class due to sick days and the times I was at school I remember hiding in the washroom trembling uncontrollably waiting for my panic attacks to end but wondering if/when I was finally gonna die. Not fun times. — Alicia C.

5. Hives

Ever notice when you get stressed, your skin starts to break out? Stress and anxiety can trigger acne breakouts or can even cause you to get hives on your skin. For children or adults who already have skin conditions like psoriasis, an autoimmune skin disease that causes red, scaly patches to appear on the skin, stress can trigger a flare-up.

I had hives on my arms and neck. — Katy K.

I broke out in hives constantly on my face as a child with anxiety. — Lisa D.

Severe blushing all over my body. At the time, I didn’t know it was related to anxiety. I just thought I was weirdly sensitive to heat and touch but now I know I was having severe panic attacks that would leave me bloodshot all over my body. — Mary T.

6. Loss of Appetite

Stress and anxiety sometimes suppress our appetites to help us deal with pressure. This can be true in cases of childhood anxiety. In many cases, once the stress resides, a child’s appetite will return.

I couldn’t eat. Started not eating at school and only at home. Eventually stopped eating at home as well. I was in second grade. It continued until fourth grade. I still periodically can’t eat due to nerves and nausea, but it’s nothing like it was. I didn’t know it was anxiety when I was small. I just knew I felt sick and couldn’t swallow food. — Melissa H.

7. Skin Picking or Other Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors

According to the TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors, body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) like scratching, compulsive skin picking or hair pulling are seldom self-harm. In most cases, people engage in BFRBs as a way to self-soothe or alleviate anxiety.

I have scarring on the inside of my mouth thanks to chewing my cheeks when I was anxious. — Amity L.

I used to pull out my hair, one strand at a time, until I had bald spots all over my scalp. It was so embarrassing, but I would do it without even recognizing what I was doing. — Jillian H.

Chewed on my fingers and nails and skin around my nails until they bled. If that wasn’t working I would, and still do, chew on the skin on my upper and lower lip. — Katherine S.

8. Shortness of Breath

Children who have difficulty breathing sometimes have health issues like asthma, lung disease or pneumonia, but in some cases, shortness of breath can be related to anxiety. Anxiety-reducing strategies like exercise and deep breathing may help a child with this symptom.

Shortness of breath. My pediatrician kept dismissing it as my asthma. I didn’t find out it was anxiety until I was 15 and went to a new doctor. — Arena G.

9. Gas and Diarrhea

Indigestion, gas and diarrhea can be common physical symptoms of anxiety in adults and children. Whether related to anxiety or a different physical condition, if you or a child in your life is experiencing gastrointestinal issues, it’s important to seek treatment.

My anxiety hit my gut resulting in cramps, gas and sometimes diarrhea which, as you can imagine, caused some pretty rough times in social situations. To make matters worse, the fear and anxiety of having those embarrassing moments, led to more intestinal irritation, so I was caught in a vicious cycle. Trying to go to college a few years ago (at age 56), the issues almost caused me to drop out. — Vicki L.

Did you experience any physical symptoms of anxiety growing up? Let us know in the comments below.

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Originally published: December 30, 2019
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