You may have had a similar occurrence with your child, such as this:
Your child: “I don’t feel good. I feel sick.”
The first thing you might have done was check for a fever. With no fever present, this lack of “proof” that they are genuinely sick might lead you to assume that they are trying to get out of going to school, doing homework, or performing an undesirable chore. But what if their symptoms are legit?
Psychoneuroimmunology studies how our central nervous system and immune system are psychologically influenced and vice versa. You may have heard this referred to as the mind-body connection—which is easier to pronounce and recall.
While your child’s symptoms may not be a byproduct of a viral infection, they may be an ‘illnesses’ induced by the mind. I am not implying your child is mentally ill in the traditional sense—having a chronic mental disorder. However, their thoughts and fears may be generating physical discomfort and sickness, which if prolonged and gone unaddressed, could lead to chronic illnesses.
While we may like to think of the mind and body as being separate, they are intertwined, communicating, and reacting in unison. Our thoughts generate chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters which carry a code that informs the rest of our body of how to feel while our mind defines our emotions generated by this chemical soup. Equally, our body sends messages to our brain letting us know whether something hurts or feels good, directly impacting our mental health.
Based on the example used at the beginning of this article, it is something to note when your child feels ill without indication of an illness. It is also a perfect opportunity to help them develop an awareness of their mind-body connection.
By asking insightful questions, like:
“Has anything happened this week that upset you?”
“Is there something you want to talk to me about or are afraid to talk about?”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Are you worried about something?”
“When do you notice your symptoms are the worst?”
“Are you feeling discomfort anywhere else?”
“What emotions are you feeling when you feel the most discomfort?”
You may discover that the root of their stomach upset is related to a situation from earlier in the week. Possibly they received a low grade on a test, and they were afraid to tell you. Subconsciously, their body is still holding onto the emotions and anxiety triggered by the event.
Having intense or prolonged physical symptoms from a stressful situation is often the case with individuals who suppress their emotions instead of expressing them. Many of us do not realize that the energy generated from an unprocessed emotion will find a way to express itself in one way or another—be it an illness or an emotional outburst (quick un-regulated release).
If your child is one to bottle up their emotions, they are also more likely to experience physical discomforts such as headaches, upset stomach, digestive issues, loss of appetite, fatigue, etc.
Additionally, these physical discomforts can feed back into their overall mood, generating a feedback loop of unpleasant emotions and physical discomfort.
Teaching your children about the mind-body connection can help them generate a more positive feedback loop and learn how to manage their emotions effectively so they do not manifest as unpleasant physical symptoms.
You do not have to wait until your children feel ill to teach them about the mind-body connection. Here, Julia M. Chamberlain, MS, INHC, LMHC, offers some great tips and techniques to help you teach your child to become attuned and mindful of the interactions of body and mind:
Encourage children to ask themselves, “what do I need now?” Sometimes we may find that we are irritable or moody due to being hungry or tired. Helping children recognize these connections is a great steppingstone to developing their mind-body intellect.
Assisting children in nourishing themselves in a holistic way, such as getting good food, sleep, and exercise, and then making a point to highlight how this makes them feel and identify any additional benefits. Also, educate children and point out how they feel when they are not meeting these needs.
Engage in mind-body activities such as tai chi and yoga to foster and strengthen the mind-body connection.
Grounding activities such as gardening or spending time in nature also may strengthen the mind-body connection.