The Undercover Doc: Can Bullying and Childhood Stress Lead to REAL Illness?

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I’ve been on a Summer hiatus but am happy to be back writing for The CLUTCH!

I’ve recently been asked whether or not bullying at school can cause medical illness. The answer is unequivocally – YES. Unfortunately during my career seeing patients in the office, ER, and hospital, I have run across many kids who suffer from very real medical conditions that stem from severe chronic emotional stress. Bullying is a major and common cause, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that situations at home aren’t equally to blame.

Medically, fear and anxiety cause a “fight or flight” response in all people and can lead to all sorts of medical issues both acutely and over the long term. Children have very different reactions to this than adults. When bullying occurs at school, it creates chronic stress and anxiety that spills over into home life. There are a number of problems that can occur in this group of kids, but I’d like to touch upon breathing problems specifically.

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) is frequently misdiagnosed as asthma and is way more common than we all realize. The symptoms involve severe, abrupt shortness of breath caused by spasms of the vocal cords and surrounding muscles. It usually occurs during exercise, but not always, and is described as “throat tightening” and trouble taking a breath inwards. The fear of future events add to the child’s overall stress and can be life-altering.

Habit coughing usually occurs when a child experiences a normal respiratory illness during a particularly tough emotional time in their life. The normal cough turns into a persistent, harsh, loud and barking cough that can last for months on end. One who has a habit cough is unaware that they themselves are contributing to the problem because their trachea is so irritated from the harsh coughing that it triggers cough receptors and the cycle continues. These kids actually feel like there is something in their lungs, but it’s merely irritation.

Throat clearing and “deep sighing” can be directly caused by stress and anxiety. It’s merely a coping mechanism that reduces stress, like biting fingernails or cracking your knuckles, and tends to get better when the stress is removed or processed through talking or therapy.

Lastly, general “shortness of breath” is a frequent complaint. Kids will explain they “can’t take a deep enough breath” or can’t “catch their breath,” even though they are breathing normally. Many times this is merely what we adults call anxiety. Most children are fortunate to not experience true anxiety like us adults so when it creeps into their previously happy-go-lucky psyche, they don’t put the two together. Children and teens are hypersensitive to their bodies and the same symptoms we feel when giving a speech in front of 100 people, they interpret as something drastically wrong with their health.

Dealing with these symptoms can be heart-wrenching and tough, and many times the medical machine just throws medicine at them and doesn’t ask about social stressors. What is really needed? Blameless emotional support from parents coupled with supportive discussions with a counselor or therapist. Address the bullying issues at school and don’t forget to assess your own family’s stress level. They may end up needing referral to their local pediatric pulmonologist, a specialist well-versed in the non-medical treatment of these conditions, or to one of our area’s wonderful child psychologists.

Undercover Doc
I am a double-boarded specialist who has worked with patients of all ages in the office, hospital and ER realm for almost two decades. I will be your unbiased source for information that healthcare teams don’t normally discuss with patients due to time of other constraints. From alternative therapies and medico-legal quandaries, to uncovering the mysterious world of medical costs and billing, I’ll focus my articles on topics you don’t see in the mainstream media or health system websites. Stay tuned for my next installment!
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