The start of a new school year can be stressful for kids. There are new classmates, a new teacher, new rules, new responsibilities and higher expectations to meet. In addition, many children are involved in multiple activities and aren’t getting enough sleep. The combination of these factors can add up to a stressed out child.
The stress response starts in the brain. When a person confronts a stressful situation, the amygdala sends a distress signal and the hypothalamus kicks in sending stress hormones that make physiological changes like a faster heart beat, quicker breaths that are more shallow, speedier brain waves, along with muscle tension and sometimes beads of sweat.
Because the brain and body are involved in a stress reaction, the best remedies can correct both the mind and body.
What’s needed is to trigger a “relaxation response,” according to Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Benson has studied the best methods for reducing stress for over 40 years. According to Benson, the best ways to counteract the stress response include deep abdominal breathing, focusing on soothing words, visualization of calming scenes, repetitive prayer, and yoga.
Here are five quick tips to help your youngster (and you!) de-stress.
1) Deep breathing. Nothing beats the convenience and ease of deep breathing to calm stress. Deep diaphragmatic breathing calms the heart, pulse rate, and blood pressure. Our lungs can fully receive needed oxygen and return oxygen-rich blood to our brain.
To teach kids how to take deep breaths, have them place their hands on their tummy below the belly button. They should take a big enough breath in through their nose so they see their belly rise and their lungs expand. It’s best if the breath is a nice, slow breath of about four seconds.
They can then hold the breath for a second and then take a nice big four-second exhale breathing out of their mouth.
Generally, five deep breaths can be helpful. You can have the child trace the perimeter of each finger on one hand as they breathe in and out until they have traced all five fingers. It’s an easy, concrete way to keep kids focused on the five breaths.
Here’s a link to a super cute video of Elmo taking deep breaths that teaches how to take deep breaths and is sure to make anyone smile: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mZbzDOpylA
2) Visualize a happy place. During a time when your child is calm ask him/her to name the place that makes them most happy. Then ask the child a series of questions to elicit sensory experiences. What do you hear in this place? What are the smells? What do you touch? What do you see? Have your child paint the picture as vividly as possible.
For instance, floating on our pontoon is one of my daughter’s favorite places. Here’s how the description might sound.
“Pretend that you’re lying on your towel on the pontoon cushion. The sun is warming all of your body. The waves are lapping quietly against the pontoon floats. You can hear the sound of the loon calling. The aroma of coconut sunscreen fills your senses. You’re quietly watching the white clouds floating by…”
When your child is stressed you can describe their special place to them or they can recreate it independently.
3) Focus on a calming word. Normally, when someone is stressed, they’re saying stress-inducing words in their mind to elicit the stress. Your child might be thinking, “I could never do that.” “My teacher is so mean.” “I hate that kid” or other negative thoughts that trigger a stress response.
To shift their thoughts, have your child pick a calming word like “peace” or “calm” that they can repeat over and over again like a mantra.
The best method would be to have the child sit in a quiet place, take some deep breaths and slowly repeat their calm down word.
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This simple combination would serve to calm the body and the mind.
4) Repetitive prayer. Benson was quoted saying that repetitive prayer is a relaxation method that helps people “break the train of everyday thoughts that cause stress.”
It can be a simple phrase that has meaning in your culture or a spiritual prayer.
If thoughts of worry creep in while repeating the prayer, Benson said to just notice the thought, say, “oh, well” and get back on track with the prayer.
Benson said that as long as the prayer is personally affirmative it can result in lowering the heart rate, quieting the brain and other physical symptoms of stress.
5) Yoga – I recently attended a conference on creating a mind-body toolkit for anxious children. The facilitators, Kathy Flaminio and Marit Appeldoorn, recommended these three yoga exercises to help children calm themselves: volcano breath; child’s pose and down dog.
Here’s how to do volcano breath: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, or sit in a chair. Place your palms together at the heart. Take a slow, deep breath through the nose and pause when the lungs are full. Bring the arms over head and exhale slowly, moving the arms out to the side and then back together at the heart.
And here’s a link to a video that shows how to do child’s pose and down dog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YJ6Mucxk4k
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