There are many things that are unique about adolescence. It is a developmentally tumultuous time that involves many physical and emotional systems. When a teenager is having a normal day, they are inundated with hormones, physical growth, emotional confusion and intensive brain activity. Introduce stress and sometimes the balance is tipped a bit too much. Teenagers are suffering from stress-related and stress-induced illnesses like never before. Recent studies suggest that seven percent of all teens suffer from chronic illnesses like Fibromyalgia or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. While these illnesses have traditionally been far more common among women and girls than men or boys, this is beginning to shift. There is no known cause for Fibro, and as of yet, no known cure. There are many treatment options, but unfortunately no one treatment helps everyone.
One thing we do know, however, is that stress is a huge factor in the onset of chronic illness, and Fibromyalgia has been gaining popularity among teenagers at an alarming rate. Defined as a collection of pain points throughout the body, Fibromyalgia is a debilitating, intractable and mysterious condition. It is a long and arduous process to diagnose in adults, and even more so in teens. If you believe your teenager might have Fibromyalgia, it is essential that your doctor eliminate as many other possible conditions that may be life threatening. Fibro is annoying and hard to live with, but not fatal.
So, why are teenagers coming down with Fibro? There are a number of possible explanations. The most obvious is stress. Teenagers are under incredible amounts of stress while they juggle their insecurities and shortcomings in a competitive and success-driven adult world. They are inundated with information and flooded by constant communication without end. They are less physically active than ever, yet more stimulated than ever.
I heard a theory this week that people are stressed because of the lack of face-to-face contact, as so much of our social interaction is done online. The natural triggers for the parasympathetic nervous system, the part responsible for calming, are less available when we are communicating remotely. All of these things combined make for a stressed out teen population.
I worked with a teenage girl a few years ago who climbed into bed with a virus and didn’t get up for three months. She is doing great now, but had to work very hard to find her way out of the fog. There were a few things about her case that were uniquely teen: One, she was torn between pleasing her parents and doing what seemed right for her. Two, she enjoyed being at home with her mom while she was ill.
During the course of our work together, she used the tools of CBT to shift her thinking enough to get well and stay that way. The good news is that teens are naturally flexible in their minds and are more responsive to treatment than most adults.
So, if your teen has unexplained chronic pain and fatigue, speak to your doctor about Fibromyalgia as a possible diagnosis.