I don’t have to tell you modern life is full of stressors that exacerbate hypertension, depression, and everything in-between. Therapeutic stress reduction techniques based in mindfulness meditation, trauma research, and a number of other fields have proliferated in our daily lives and everyday conversation, helping people cope with chronic pain, career anxiety, and the toxic miasma of our geopolitics.
These methods have been very successful among adult populations—of monks, veterans, clinical subjects, etc.—but adults process information very differently than children. And as every parent knows, kids get majorly stressed out too, whether they’re absorbing our anxieties second-hand or feeling the pressures of their own social and educational environments.
We can’t expect young children to sit still and pay attention to their breath for thirty minutes, or to change their mental scripts with cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s far easier for kids to process things through their imagination, channeling anxiety through play, or art, or—as pediatric psychologists at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) explain—guided mental visualization, or “guided imagery,” as they call it. How does it work?
Guided imagery involves envisioning a certain goal to help cope with health problems or the task or skill a child is trying to learn or master. Guided imagery is most often used as a relaxation technique that involves sitting or lying quietly and imagining a favorite, peaceful setting like a beach, meadow or forest.
The therapists at CHOC “teach patients to imagine sights, sounds, smells, tastes or other sensations to create a kind of daydream that ‘removes’ them from or gives them control over their present situation.” In the video at the top, Dr. Cindy Kim describes the technique as “akin to biofeedback,” and it has been especially helpful for children facing a scary medical procedure.
While all of us might need to go to our happy place once in a while, most kids find it hard to relax without some form of creative redirection, like the guided imagery program above from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. At the CHOC website, you’ll find over a dozen other audio programs tailored for pain and stress management and relaxation, for both young children and adolescents. Lifehacker’s parenting editor Michelle Woo describes a representative sampling of the programs:
- For pain management for young kids, listen to “The Special Cake.” Sample line: “With your next deep breath in, notice the sweet smell of the yummy frosting.”
- For pain management for teens, listen to “Climbing a Ladder.” Sample line: “Let’s have a look at the first step. As you put your foot on it, you begin to remember a time when you realize that you can have control over your body.”
- For anxiety, listen to “The Magic Kite.” Sample line: “All of the uncomfortable feelings or sadness or anger or pain or worry are all on the ground and you are flying away from it.”
As kids listen to audio, Woo writes, “have them notice how their body feels—their breathing may slow and their muscles might relax.” And hey, there’s no reason guided imagery can’t work for grown-ups too. Try it if you’re feeling stressed and let us know how it works for you.