All children worry about things from time to time, and learning how to manage these worrying or anxious thoughts and feelings is an important part of growing into a calm and confident adult.
I have always believed that teaching children how to manage their anxious thoughts and feelings whilst they are young and open, can lay an incredibly strong foundation for managing the daily challenges they may face in later life.
With this belief, I knew I needed to do something to help, so I decided to self-publish a colourful and vibrant picture book sharing the mindful tools I myself use on a daily basis.
Over the last three years Imagine Eating Lemons has gone on to help thousands of children, and has even been read by royalty.
Now that the book is soon to be re-published by Graffeg, I thought it would be useful to break down the hidden tools that are shared in Imagine Eating Lemons, showing you how a mindful practice can help your child learn how to be a more calm and present human.
To begin with, the name Imagine Eating Lemons was taken from a simple exercise to show how thoughts can have an actual, physical reaction in your body.
Imagine for a moment, holding up a big, juicy, slice of lemon on a hot summer’s day, taking a great big bite out of it, and with a screwed up face, explaining how tangy and bitter it tastes. You might find that your mouth begins to salivate, and the sides of your tongue tingle.
This is because your body is responding to your thoughts. Although you’re not actually biting into a lemon in reality, your body can’t tell the difference between a real lemon and an imaginary lemon. It will respond in the same way.
This is the same process when it comes to your anxious thoughts. When you are thinking about the worst-case scenarios of what may happen in a situation, your body responds as though the danger is happening for real. Your body will trigger the fight or flight reaction which can be experienced as a racing heart, shallow breath, sickness in the stomach and a feeling of nervous energy surging through your body – even when nothing is happening in that one moment.
Imagine Eating Lemons opens with an introduction to Chester Chestnut – a tiny woodland creature made from a chestnut. When writing the story I knew it was incredibly important to highlight the fact that, although Chester may experience anxious thoughts and feelings, he is also many other things. Chester is also happy, he loves to dance, sing and bounce through giant puddles. Anxiety isn’t what defines his personality.
We then hear how Chester sometimes struggles with worrying thoughts that seem to grow bigger and bigger over time, giving him a poorly tummy. This can be used as an opportunity to open up a conversation with your child about how they themselves experiences worry, as we all experience it differently.
Being able to name and spot these physical sensations at the beginning of the anxious spiral is key to breaking the pattern that leads to anxiety. These physical sensations can be seen as a little alarm bell, letting you know that it’s time to take a peaceful, mindful moment.
THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL
The story continues as Chester Chestnut is thinking about his first day at school. He starts to imagine himself being left out by the other children and feeling embarrassed as he tumbles down the stairs by accident.
As Chester thinks about all of the worst things that could happen, he notices the beginning of an anxious spiral as his tummy turns and his head begins to buzz.
He uses these physical sensations as a reminder to take a mindful moment.
THE MINDFUL PRACTICE
In order to calm himself, Chester begins a mindful practice that is repeated throughout the story whenever he faces a worrying scenario.
“He slowly takes a deep breath in and wiggles all his toes. He feels his tingly fingertips and tickling in his nose…”
Connecting with your breath is one of the most powerful parts of the mindful practice. Taking a moment to gently redirect your attention away from your worrying thoughts and back to your breath can introduce a much-needed moment of space. See this like taking a single domino out of a long line of dominos. When there is a break in the dominos, it prevents the first domino from knocking down all of the others. Similarly, creating a break in the line of anxious thinking can prevent the fight or flight reaction from being triggered.
Chester next brings his attention to his direct surroundings and explores it with his senses. He notices the things he can hear in the distance, such as the passing train, and the things he can hear up close such as the pattering rain on the window pane.
This again, is a way of redirecting his attention away from the spiral of thoughts by focussing on the present moment. In reality, he hasn’t fallen down the stairs or been left out by children. That was all happening in his thoughts. He is actually just standing in his bedroom as a train goes by in the distance. In the present moment he is completely safe.
Finally, Chester ends this mindful practice by thinking of the best things that could happen when he gets to school. He thinks of making lots of new friends and having lots of fun. This is such a powerful tool for managing the feeling of anxiety.
As we have already seen, thinking of the worst-case scenarios can make your body trigger the stress chemicals/fight or flight reaction. In exactly the same way, thinking of the best-case scenarios, can make the body release the reward chemicals that make you feel happy and excited. Your body can’t tell the difference between something amazing that is happening for real, and something amazing you’re just imagining. Your body will respond as though it is all happening in reality.
Whatever thoughts you’re thinking about a certain situation will determine how you feel about it.
Although cautious thoughts have their place and can be absolutely necessary when it comes to planning ahead and avoiding potential danger, cautious thoughts are something that must be used as a tool. It’s incredibly important to learn how to redirect your attention away from your thoughts when you need to. Breaking the spiral of anxiety with tools such as mindfulness and meditation before the fight or flight response is triggered, is much easier than trying to calm yourself down once your body is already surging with adrenaline.
In a future guest blog post I will break down the experience of anxiety and how to understand the reasons for it in slightly more detail.
About Jason Rhodes
Jason Rhodes is a wellness coach who specialises in overcoming social anxiety, performance anxiety, anxiety in relationships and generalised anxiety with mindfulness. He came to write the children’s book Imagine Eating Lemons as part of a much larger vision. He wants to educate the younger generation with the simple tools needed to help manage their thoughts and feelings, resulting in a much more peaceful and connected world. Having suffered from extreme anxiety himself for many years he discovered the practice of mindfulness and life quickly began to change. He has now ended his career as a film actor and decided to focus all of his energy on helping to spread awareness of this life-changing practice. Follow him on Instagram @jasonrhodeswellness
Cover picture created by senivpetro – www.freepik.com