Some of the children I counsel become anxious about their physical symptoms and even worry about the possibility of developing symptoms. The most common health related fear among the children in my practice is of pain. The most common anxiety related fear is throwing up. Still others fear bleeding.
To help the children think and feel differently about their symptoms, I explain that, counterintuitively, the symptoms often arise as the body’s way of being helpful. For example, I tell them that fever is caused by the brain in response to an infection. The immune system works better in a higher temperature environment, and thus when the brain detects there is an infection in the body it instructs the body to generate more heat, which causes a fever.
I explain that in olden times, people became very scared at the onset of fever, because it often heralded an incurable infection. In the days before antibiotics an infection could have led to a rapid death. Fortunately, in modern times most dangerous bacterial infections can be treated successfully. Thus, we no longer need to greatly fear fever.
I explain that pain also is a useful symptom in that it helps us become aware that something is wrong. Also, pain helps us to be more careful. For example, if we break an arm bone, the pain guides us to go get checked out, and keeps us from moving our arm too much, which can cause further injury. Or, if we suffer from a skin infection, pain can tell us that the infection is becoming worse.
However, once the source of pain is identified and addressed, there is no need to continue paying as much attention to the pain. In this case, it can be very helpful to use hypnosis to decrease our perception of pain, and to remain calm despite the discomfort.
When pain becomes chronic, it is often necessary to work through the pain in order to improve, rather than avoiding activities that might make the pain worse. In such situations, avoidance of pain can lead to the development of increased discomfort. Enhancement of comfort with hypnosis can be very beneficial in this setting.
In my experience, an increasing number of children have reported a fear of throwing up. Often this fear begins when a child has thrown up or witnessed someone else throwing up.
I explain that throwing up is one important way the body protects itself from poisons or infections. If the child eats something that could be harmful, the body has two ways of getting rid of it quickly: throwing up or causing diarrhea. Thus, even though throwing up may be scary or uncomfortable, the child can be thankful that the body protected itself. I remind children that often after they throw up, they feel better.
For children who are very anxious about throwing up I remind them that the more they avoid activities that they fear could cause them to throw up (e.g., eating a new food or exercising) the larger the fear becomes. I encourage them to use self-calming when they become fearful, and to proceed as much as possible with an anxiety-inducing activity. In this way they learn to be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, which is an essential step towards overcoming a phobia.
People bleed when they have been injured, and thus the sight of blood can trigger anxiety that something might be very wrong. Even when people undergo a blood test in a laboratory, many of us become fearful at the sight of blood, perhaps because of our association of blood with bad events. In fact, the pain associated with blood draws is yet another bad event related to blood!
However, as I explain to my patients, bleeding is very helpful. This is why we are built to bleed! Blood contains infection fighting cells that help ward off an infection. The blood also delivers repair cells to the site of an injury that help patch things up.
Milton Erickson, the legendary hypnotherapist, told his patients to check out the color of their blood and to make sure it was bright red, which was a sign of good health. In this way children were directed to think about whether they are healthy, rather than worrying about the injury that caused their bleeding.
Reframing some physical symptoms as a way that the body helps itself can help patients embrace rather than fear their symptoms.
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