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Recurrent Illness: Stress and Illness

Stress can be physical or emotional and often we as the adult may not be aware of a child’s stress. If we live in a fight-or-flight state every day, it affects our immune system and can hold us in the sick cycle.

The case I am about to share with you is a great example of how one child’s sensory challenges caused him stress during the school day. It took a great deal of energy for him to sit still in a classroom while interacting with peers and learning new material. He was having recurrent illnesses at the time, and the stress of school likely made his symptoms worse. 

Dr. Kilbane discusses a complex case that presented as oral ulcers and turned out to be much more.

William was a former twenty-nine-week premature twin, who weighed only three pounds at birth. Besides asthma, he had environmental allergies, and a condition called PFAPA (Periodic Fever, Aphthous Stomatitis, Pharyngitis, Cervical Adenitis). Before coming to me, William had been on many courses of antibiotics, steroids, and missed a lot of school. He had been to four specialists and had undergone invasive procedures, including a colonoscopy, endoscopy, and biopsies of the mouth ulcers.

Here is the case described by William’s mother.

A mother’s story about her child’s stress and illness

We brought our son to Dr. Kilbane’s office when we were not finding answers to his chronic health issues. We were told he had everything from viruses to bad luck. Various doctors prescribed medications, bloodwork, scans, and biopsies. The final straw was when a specialist at a prestigious hospital outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, mentioned that he could have cancer. William presented to Dr. Kilbane’s office fearful of tests, dropping weight, and tired of the cyclic fevers.

On our first visit, Dr. Kilbane spoke at length with William and me about his symptoms and pain. The next visit, it was just she and I alone, discussing William’s birth to present-day issues. I told her during that visit that William is my sick child and his twin brother is my healthy one. Dr. Kilbane immediately stopped me during this conversation. She asked me to recognize that I was calling him “sick” and encouraged me to be cognizant of the words I was using. Then she asked that I focus on how he is healthy in between those six-week periods, and how we can keep him healthy.

After putting the two visits together, and a round of blood work, we finally saw a change. We started daily probiotics and fish oil and corrected his low zinc and iron levels with supplements.

Engaging an occupational therapist

We engaged an occupational therapist, Cindy Utzinger, OT, to help William. Cindy wrote a phenomenal book, Why Is My Kid Doing That?: A Sensory Approach to Understanding Your Child. She and her book helped us find coping mechanisms to help him with sensory issues, and tools on how to focus on positive thoughts.

We transformed our home so William had therapy tricks to help decrease his stress in almost every room. When his fevers spiked or he had stressful days, he would often request ear and back massages that Dr. Kilbane had taught us. When the mouth ulcers increased in number, we performed visualizations to help with the pain and facilitate the healing.

Understand the stress cycle

A sick child understandably causes parental stress. When the parents’ stress interferes with the child’s healing process, the ensuing stress cycle makes it difficult for parents to keep themselves healthy and balanced. This, in turn, affects the sick child and everyone in the home. Stress is one of the five main triggers of inflammation.

The Five Main Triggers of Inflammation as illustrated by cups

When we have excessive amounts of inflammation, symptoms worsen. Our goal with integrative medicine, and my Health Kids Happy Mom’s Program, is to decrease the child’s overall systemic inflammation by addressing and lessening each of the five triggers. Lower inflammation allows the immune system to work optimally and supports the healing process.

When a child is in crisis mode, most mothers won’t step away and focus on themselves. But when the child comes into balance, mothers have time to focus on their health and mental well-being. I’ve seen this shift happen many times in my practice, and I love it! I see the mom feel connected to her life again—no longer feeling like she’s stranded on a deserted island with nothing but fear and worry about her sick child.

Reducing stress and restoring health

My role is to see the child as whole and perfect exactly as he or she is. I work with the family as a team, to understand the child’s cellular health, physiology, biochemistry, and nervous system. I conduct a thorough history, physical exam, lab work, and pay attention to the intangible influencers of a child’s health.

William and Dr. Kilbane 11 years after he became her patient
William and Dr. Kilbane

William’s parents had a great relationship and worked beautifully as a team. They took a closer look at how they could reduce stress in their household. During the week, William’s mom was managing a household and raising three boys alone because his dad was traveling most of the week on business. 

They made some changes. Dad rearranged his work so he could stop traveling as much, which significantly decreased Mom’s stress. (Interestingly, Mom herself used to get significantly painful oral ulcers when she was a junior nurse working in the critical care unit, a very stressful workplace.) The way this family handled this young boy’s health challenges truly knocked my socks off.

A year after that initial visit with Dr. Kilbane, we celebrated! For the first time ever, William had perfect attendance at school. He gained weight because he could eat without being in pain. He was well enough to swim an individual medley, and completed it in under two minutes (and he did not need his inhaler once)! Tears were in my eyes as he swam, but welled more when we got home, and he wanted to call Dr. Kilbane to share the news! 

The OT helped support his system during the school day, and his parents rearranged their schedules so they felt more relaxed and less pressured on a day to day basis. The lower stress significantly helped William’s symptoms. 

William’s before and after cup of inflammation is a visual depiction of how his inflammation decreased after our work together.

Granted, William’s family’s resolution to stress might not be the one that works for your family. The stress cycle can be addressed in many different ways. The first step is simply recognizing the level of stress in the household, and then you can go about addressing it as a family. 

The parasympathetic nervous system

Life and people will always throw wrenches into our well-intentioned plans to keep our inner state a bastion of harmony, but this is a process, and it takes practice. Living more in the parasympathetic or relaxed state allows us to maintain a better semblance of peace in our inner environment. It’s just like riding a bike: Once you learn how it feels to be calm on the inside, you can return to that state anytime, using any techniques that work for you.

It’s about balancing the two parts of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), the sympathetic nervous system (SNS, “fight or flight”) with the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS, relaxation).

The ANS controls our internal organs and the processes we are aware of, such as heart rate and respiratory rate, as well as things we are not aware of, such as digestion and blood pressure.

Research on the mind-body connection shows that activities such as deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can modify our ANS by activating the parasympathetic side. Activating the PNS triggers the healing response. When our system relaxes, it’s easier to improve many illnesses, in adults and in children.

Kids resonate with the predominant adult in the home. One of the best things we adults can do for the children around us is to keep ourselves healthy, both physically and mentally. 

For those of you who’ve listened to the audio version of my book, you’ll recall that William and his mother narrated their story. See them pictured below in the recording studio eleven years from the day they first came into my practice. I am blessed beyond measure to have them in my life.

Parasympathetic Nervous System
William and his mother recording their story in Healthy Kids, Happy Moms audiobook
William and his mother recording their story for the Healthy Kids, Happy Moms audiobook

Takeaways

  • Adults set the tone in the home.
  • We help ourselves, mentally and physically, as well as our children, by spending more time in a state of relaxation versus the stressed-out fight-or-flight state many of have grown accustomed to.
  • Much healing can happen even when an illness isn’t completely cured.
  • We can start to mitigate emotional and physical distress in ourselves and our children by practicing daily mindfulness techniques and deep breathing.
  • My Healthy Kids, Happy Moms Course has a great deal more on this topic, including specific mindfulness techniques.

Schedule a FREE 15-minute informational call with my practice’s patient care specialist to discuss your child’s issues.

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What If You Could Break Your Child's Sick Cycle?

Discover 7 Steps to Heal and
Prevent Common Childhood Illnesses

Online Course

The Healthy Kids, Happy Moms Companion Course is a physician-led, parent-centered, time-tested online course that includes assessments, workbooks, recipes, and illness-specific recommendations.

Become a Patient

 Dr. Kilbane’s private practice, Infinite Health, is based in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is currently accepting new patients

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