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By Denise Allen,
Australian society likes to picture childhood as a safe, carefree time, but children and adolescents these days are under extraordinary pressure to achieve in the classroom and on the sports field, to please parents, teachers and coaches. Our children are caught up in the constant hurry of modern society and are often overwhelmed by choice. They may have to deal with the stresses of a blended family and/or parental separation.
The current high levels of suicide, depression and drug abuse among Australia's youth highlight the fact that childhood and adolescence can be a time of significant stress and turmoil.
Children and adolescents are not immune to stress, but are wonderfully receptive to learning stress management skills and relaxation techniques.
Over the past 4 years I have specialised in teaching children and adolescents relaxation and stress management, and have become only too aware of how anxiety ridden, stressful and troubled these years can be.
"Stress is the feeling we experience when we lose confidence in our ability to cope with a situation."
So it involves both the external pressures of a given situation and our own internal perceptions, thoughts and beliefs about that situation. Thus two individuals in the same situation can experience very different levels of stress.
When talking to younger children I tend to use a simpler definition:
"Stress is the feeling of being out of control."
The main presenting symptoms of stress in the children and adolescents I have seen are:
To help reduce stress levels, regain confidence and promote a sense of being in control, there are a number of simple techniques that children and adolescents can learn. These include breathing awareness, progressive muscle relaxation and visualisation. Breathing awareness can be practiced almost anywhere and at anytime, and ideally could be used several times a day. Following the relaxing of the body with a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, a visualisation then deepens the relaxation of the mind. For best results they can be combined in a daily practice session.
When our stress levels rise our breathing speeds up and becomes shallower. Conversely becoming aware of our breathing and learning to slow down and deepen each breath allows us to feel more relaxed. Becoming aware of our breathing is a simple strategy. My two favourite breathing techniques are abdominal breathing and sigh breathing.
Abdominal breathing is a useful breathing technique. It may take a little practise to master but be patient and it will happen. Place one hand on you tummy so that the belly button is below the centre of the palm. Now place the other hand on the top of the first hand. Take a slow deep breath in and imagine the diaphragm, a large band of muscle below your lungs, moving down as your lungs expand, and causing your tummy to rise gently under your hands. As you breathe out your lungs contract, the diaphragm moves back up, and you can feel your tummy gently fall. Breathe in slowly and deeply, feel your tummy rise. Breathe out slowly and feel your tummy fall. Don't force your breathing; just make it deeper and slower. Continue breathing in this manner for at least 10 to 20 cycles.
Sigh breathing involves taking a moderately deep breath in through nose and, pausing only briefly, letting the air out slowly through your nose. The slow gentle exhale is the key to sigh breathing. Be sure to lengthen your outward breath. Now as you breathe out let go - relax your muscles of your face, your jaw and your shoulders. Let go of tension in your chest and stomach. Let your arms and legs relax. As your breath out feel a wave of relaxation flow from the top of your head and all the way down to your feet. As you continue to breathe in this manner for at least 10 to 20 cycles, direct your attention outside yourself. Focus your attention on what you can see and hear.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique that relaxes the body progressively as you focus on different muscle groups in the body. For beginners to highlight the difference between a tensed state and a relaxed state I like to include a simple tensing exercise. For example:
Point your fingers and toes while stretching all the muscles in your arms and leg ... Really feel the stretch and hold ... Big breath in and as you breathe out relax the muscles and allow your whole body to soften and relax.
Now bend up your knees towards your chest and wrap your arms around your knees and curl yourself up in a ball shape, bringing your head forward towards your knees. Tighten the muscles and hold the ball shape ... Now take a big breath in and as you breathe out uncurl your body and relax the muscles and allow your whole body to soften and relax ... Feeling soft and relaxed like a sleepy cat or a rag doll.
Now focus on specific muscle groups relaxing those muscles before moving on to the next group. For example:
Focus your attention on your feet, your toes, and your ankles ... As you breathe in imagine your breath flowing all the way down to your toes and as you breathe out just let go of any tightness, any tension and discomfort and allow the muscles to relax, feel the muscles soften.
Focus on your calf muscles ... As you breathe in imagine your breath flowing all the way down to your calf muscles and as you breathe out relaxing the calf muscles ... letting go of any tightness, any tension.
And so on, progressing right through the body to muscle groups in the face. Younger people find it easier to stay focused if someone talks them through the progressive relaxation and visualisation process. A relaxation CD with a variety of tracks is an ideal aid.
Visualisation is thinking in pictures, images and sensations. Visualisation is a powerful technique as it enlists the imagination to problem-solve, to provide a haven to calm and nurture the soul and stimulate creativity. Visualisation is very absorbing, and tends to stop or slow down the "chatter of the mind", giving time out from the everyday worries, concerns and negative thoughts. Ideally visualisation is introduced after progressive muscle relaxation, so you relax the body, and then relax the mind. The following is a simple example of a visualisation.
Imagine there is a butterfly sitting on your chest ...
it has its wings spread and it is preparing to take flight ... it seems more and more likely to do so every time you breathe in and out ... but it remains sitting on you chest for some time ... Look at this butterfly carefully ... look at its colour and shape ... Soon the butterfly will take flight ... Imagine following the butterfly to a pleasant place. A place where you feel relaxed, comfortable and safe ... Pay careful attention to the sights and sounds, smells and sensations of this place ... how it feels and how you feel being there ... allow yourself to enjoy being there and to relax as fully as possible ... You have 1 minute to enjoy this place and it is all the time that you need ... remember that you carry this peaceful place inside you and you can come here and visit any time you wish.
Encourage you child or adolescent to embrace some relaxation techniques as part of their daily routine. Learning how to relax is a skill that will prove beneficial for the rest of their lives.
Denise Allen is an Occupational Therapist who has a private practice on the Central Coast of NSW.
Denise has produced a relaxation CD, "Cool Karma - Relaxation Imagery for Adolescents", which includes breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and visualisation techniques.
Cool Karma contains 4 complete relaxation sessions available for purchase from the Stress Free Youth web site or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
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