Managing Emotions with Breathing Makes It Better


Managing Emotions with Breathing Makes It Better

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Summary Wendy O'Leary shares a short practice and reflection on emotion, imagination, and the power of connecting with our bodies.
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Managing Emotions with Breathing Makes It Better

A Parade of Feelings and the Power of Body Based Visualization
by Wendy O’Leary, author of Breathing Makes It Better

I can see us now, my children and I on a frigid and snowy afternoon. Everyone’s patience was beginning to run low. I had to cancel several “important things” to be home for the day and they were getting a bit bored with each other’s company. Did I mention that we had no power, so there was no TV or computers for distraction? This was before the days with cell phones!

“Hey, let’s make a parade,” I suggested. I am not sure if this was the first time we played this imagination game, but for me it is the most vivid recollection. They took turns popping up on our window seat, or “stage,” as they called it, to walk in their parade. “Parade like you are really, really grouchy.” “Now try sad . . . excited . . . scared . . . sneaky . . .” and the list went on. They had so much fun playing out the different emotions and soon asked to take turns picking “who” was in the parade while the others had to guess.

How could we tell? What did it look like when they were “parading” as a scared person, and how did it feel for the one who was pretending? Soon our parade included animals, nature, and even melting ice cream, my favorite (we had a long day ahead of us!). My daughter noticed that being a giraffe felt important with the long, erect neck, and my son was all about feeling strong like a mountain and lion.

This was years before I started to actively teach mindfulness to young ones, but I quickly realized that using our imaginations can so easily support the cultivation of certain feelings. “So if you are scared, what animal or thing could you be that might be helpful?” I asked. “How about angry?” That was the one we needed to work on that day!

Tapping into our imagination and feeling it in our bodies is a powerful technique, and one that is utilized in the book I co-authored with Chris Willard called Breathing Makes It Better. To be clear, I am not talking about imagining we win the lottery and then believing that’s going to happen. No, this is about tapping into what is already inside us and watering those seeds more actively by using visualization and imagination. Let’s face it, worry is only negative visualization, so why not use that force for good in our lives to support our, and our children’s, happiness?

A Practice to Help Your Children Slow Down

Imagine a mountain, strong and steady. Sit like a mountain, feel like a mountain. Imagine a lake calm and clear. Can you feel the sense of having a smooth and still lake inside you? How about a wide open sky?

Notice your body and take a deep sigh.

Now imagine you’re like the wide open sky.

First we identify the feelings, and by naming them, we are giving children the power to work with them more effectively. Then tie the feeling we want to cultivate with a visual and embody that image while using the breath. These mindfulness practices, based on teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh, are the basis of the book and are tools I accidentally stumbled upon on what turned out to be a wonderful snowy day!

When feelings are strong, be still . . . be here.

Breathe in, breathe out—peace is near.

See more:
  • The Breathing Makes It Better Guide for Teachers and Caregivers
  • Middle Way Education’s review of Breathing Makes It Better.
  • Wendy O’Leary guides children in making Happiness Soup!
  • In this video, Wendy O’Leary shows children how to relate to feelings of anxiety and shares a breathing exercise to help them feel calmer.


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