By Jeffrey Lazarus, MD, FAAP on January 7th, 2021
Author, Controlling Your Gut Feelings Blog
Is Your Child’s IBS Made Worse By The World Today?
During this time of COVID-19, more people are attending school online and working remotely from home. You may be wondering how this affects patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Remember, IBS can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and other digestive issues such as vomiting, diarrhea, and/or constipation. And, it is often triggered by anxiety.
I am hearing from my pediatric and pediatric gastroenterology colleagues that, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, since the kids were home, and not at school, there was a lot less anxiety. In addition, for those patients who may have experienced IBS-D (that is, IBS, subtype diarrhea — this is when the main symptom is diarrhea), in particular, there was a lot less anxiety for them, too, because they didn’t have to worry about how soon they could get to a bathroom.
And, since increased worrying leads to increased symptoms, and increased symptoms lead to more worrying, there is frequently a vicious circle. So, with decreased worrying, there were fewer symptoms, thereby causing even less worrying…and patients were calmer and more comfortable.
So, that was one temporary advantage of COVID-19.
Now, it seems that the anxiety is ramping back up.
As COVID-19 drags on, there is no clear end in sight.
Young people are missing seeing friends at school and their after-school activities. As the restrictions on in-person learning and working continue, for those families where parents can work from home, suddenly, the entire family is together all day and night, every day and every night!
At times, parents may need a break from their children. And kids may need a break from their parents! Of course, without children being able to go to school in person, there is no break! And this can certainly add to stress in both parents and children.
There is a lot of uncertainty, including:
Changes in schooling and not knowing how school is going to continue to change as the needs of our communities change.
- For older students, will they be able to go away to college?
- How will they manage online classes?
- Will they choose to take a gap year?
- Older children and teens may wonder:
- Will I be able to keep up with schoolwork online?
- When will I be able to participate in my favorite sport?
- Or practice and perform with the band?
- Or be in a school play?
- For younger students, it is not yet clear whether schools will be open. In addition, if they are open, they may be on staggered schedules, such as in the classroom 2 days a week with remote learning 3 days a week. Kids may wonder:
- When will I be able to get together with my friends in person?
These factors can lead not only to anxiety, but also to sadness, and, in some cases, depression… making IBS worse.
Parents and adults are also experiencing uncertainty for different reasons:
Job insecurity: Many people around the country are struggling with this. Many businesses are not doing well or have even stopped functioning altogether. This puts tremendous stress on the breadwinners, and on their families, and can lead to increased anxiety in children.
Food insecurity: Sadly, many students rely on going to school in order to receive some of their meals. Some school systems have been able to provide meals by having parents pick them up at the local schools.
Health concerns: Some families have relatives who are over 65 years old or have medical conditions that put them at greater risk if they catch COVID.
Worrying about the future: What happens when people return to work and to school? Will COVID spread? And, if it does, will my parents/grandparents/friends/loved ones get sick and possibly even die from it?
Although students have avoided some anxiety by staying home, it may hit them even harder when they return to work or school. Re-entry may be even more difficult because avoidance is one of “anxiety’s best friends.”
There are 3 main safety behaviors, or dysfunctional coping mechanisms, that people use to deal with anxiety: avoidance, reassurance seeking, and escape.
I have modified this into an acronym: ARE
ARE you, as parents, making your child’s anxiety worse?
- Avoidance – Although in the short term avoiding doing something that worries you may seem to help, it actually makes the worrying worse in the long term because it reinforces the message that you can’t do this.
- Reassurance – Often when children are worried about something, they seek reassurance from their parents. And, then, when parents reassure them, it allows the children to feel more comfortable, causing their anxiety level to decrease temporarily. The problem with this, though, is that children then learn that when they are worried, the best way to deal with this is to go to their parents for help. Of course, loving parents want to comfort and reassure their children.
- Escape – Being able to escape from a situation allows you to not have to deal with that situation as well as with the anxiety it causes.
And, this perpetuates the anxiety under these circumstances made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. More anxiety means more IBS symptoms.
Special COVID-19 resources to help with your child’s IBS symptoms
Due to these strange and uncertain times, I’ve created some extra free resources.
Click here to see a couple brief videos designed to help your family cope with the stress of COVID-19. This will give you a brief taste, more like the tip of the iceberg, of some of the skills you can learn from my program, “Controlling Your Gut Feelings®.”
For a more comprehensive approach to prepare your child for many of the above scenarios, “Controlling Your Gut Feelings®” provides patients the skills and tools needed to control both the symptoms of IBS and abdominal pain, and also the anxiety that accompanies these conditions.
Or, if your child is suffering from IBS symptoms and you’d like a one-on-one consultation, I’d love to speak with you and help however I can. I hear from many of my patients that they feel like they’ve “tried everything” before finally breaking through with me.
My mission is to help as many families as possible, especially with everything going on in the world today. If you’d like to chat, you can book a free consultation with me here.
Jeffrey E. Lazarus, MD, FAAP is a board certified pediatrician who combines more than 25 years of general pediatrics experience with the use of medical hypnosis and visualization techniques to treat children and adults.