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Health Anxieties in Children – How to Spot Early Signs

By Kate Sheppard

As human beings, it is normal for us to feel an amount of anxiety. This is also true for children. Many children are afraid of the dark or nervous about meeting new people and making new friends. This is normal. 

However, sometimes, what begins as normal anxiety levels in children can increase into something more substantial. Pupils in any year group can develop anxiety disorder. What you need to know is how to spot the early signs

In this article, we will be discussing health anxieties in pupils and how you can spot the early signs of this condition so that you can take the appropriate next steps. 

An anxious boyWhat is Health Anxiety? 

Health anxiety is a specific form of anxiety where a person becomes obsessively, and often unnecessarily, worried about their health. Health anxiety is more commonly known by the term ‘hypochondria’ and is a prevalent anxiety condition in both children and adults that has a significant impact on the individual’s quality of life. 

What Causes Health Anxieties in Pupils? 

Anxiety, like most mental health conditions, does not have the same cause for everyone. What causes one pupil to develop health anxiety, may not cause it for another. There are different causes of anxiety and some are more obvious than others. 

As educators it’s vital to identify some of the most common causes of health anxieties in pupils. These are usually the result of:

  • Being around other anxious pupils and picking up on their behavior 
  • A stressful or traumatic event, such as the death of a close relative, physical or emotional abuse, or an accident 
  • Frequently moving to a new house, school, or neighborhood
  • School-related stress such as bullying or exam pressure 
  • A serious illness, injury or accident 

Common Symptoms of Anxiety in Pupils 

Just like adults do, children exhibit symptoms of anxiety in very different ways. However, if you suspect a pupil of yours is struggling with anxiety, below is a list of common symptoms to be aware of: 

  • Frequently complaining about stomach aches 
  • Claiming sickness to result in going home with a sick note
  • Experiencing sudden mood changes that are seemingly unprovoked 
  • Asking to constantly go to the toilet
  • Having difficulty concentrating and paying attention 
  • Loss of appetite during lunchtime
  • Isolation, quietness, and reduced social interaction during class 

How to Spot the Early Signs of Health Anxiety in Pupils 

As we have already discussed, health anxiety is a specific form of anxiety that focuses predominantly on an individual’s health or perceived lack thereof. Health anxieties in pupils can be worrisome as they can have a significant impact on a child’s normal development and functioning. Therefore, many teachers are keen to spot the early signs of the condition so they can take the necessary steps to provide support

Below we share how as teachers we can spot the early signs of health anxiety in pupils. 

  1. Worrying About Minor Health Symptoms 

If you notice a pupil is often exaggerating the severity of minor health conditions – for example, assuming a headache is the sign of a brain tumour – this is often a telling sign they are struggling with health anxiety. 

  1. Frequently Asking to Go to the School Nurse 

Another common sign of health anxiety is frequently asking to go to the school nurse. Children suffering from health anxiety want to see the nurse as often as they can, either to report new conditions they are worried about or to seek reassurance. 

However, the flip side to this is that some children with health anxiety do not find any reassurance from the nurse and instead assume their diagnosis – or even their test results – are incorrect. 

  1. Struggling to Function Day-to-day 

Children with health anxieties tend to become so preoccupied with the state of their health, or lack thereof, that they struggle to function well during class. 

Signs that a pupil of yours may be struggling to function will be specific to them, however may include things such as difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, little to no appetite, no interest in activities they previously enjoyed, and difficulty enjoying themselves. 

  1. Repeatedly Checking Their Body for Signs of Illness 

Children that obsessively check their bodies for signs of illness tend to be showing signs of health anxiety. A child in your class could be doing this because someone close to them has died from a specific illness or injury. 

Alternatively, they could be obsessively checking because they’re worried about developing a medical illness that runs in their family. Whatever the cause, repeatedly checking the body for signs of illness is a typical sign of health anxiety in children. 

Next Steps: Seek Professional Help 

If you have noticed that a pupil of yours is showing signs of health anxiety and you are concerned, it is important to reach out to the child’s parent to discuss your observations and concerns. Rest assured that spotting the signs early can go a long way towards affecting a positive outcome for your pupils. 

Final Words 

We hope this article will help you spot the early signs of health anxiety in your pupils so that you can take the appropriate next steps. According to The New York Times, “opening a dialogue with children about how they are feeling and listening without judgement are critical.” Be encouraged that health anxiety is a treatable condition and there is plenty of support available, should your child need it.

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