My stomach hurts often, and it has ever since I was a little kid. I’ve completed numerous medical tests over the years, and each time doctors share that there is no medical reason for my sore tummy. But my pain is REAL, and at times it has been debilitating.
Over the last decade I have discovered that my stomach pain is connected with my emotions, and how my mind and body work together to try to regulate them.
When I was little, I frequently felt anxious. No one could tell from the outside because my stress response was to internalize everything. I constantly tried my best to adapt to my surroundings and to do what I thought was expected of me, even if it felt super scary. Whenever I tried to ignore those anxious feelings, the stress would go straight to my tummy. My stomach absorbed my emotional discomfort. My body held and contained my anxiety for me. Suddenly I had a stomach ache. The transformation from emotional distress to physical pain was immediate, and completely subconscious (I wasn’t aware of it).
Through my work as an art therapist, I know that there are TONS of kiddos who share my experience. When I begin working with families, caregivers often mention that their child experiences stomach aches despite a clean bill of health from their pediatrician.
Based on my personal and professional experience, I’ve noticed that emotional tummy aches usually happen for one (or more) of the following reasons:
- I’m feeling worried/ nervous/ anxious about something (eg. I have to give a presentation at school tomorrow)
- I’m having an emotion that feels scary so I’m trying to keep it inside (eg. I feel mad at my sibling but I don’t know how to express it safely, so I’m trying to keep my mad feelings inside and not let them show)
- I’ve been doing my best to self regulate, and my nervous system is overwhelmed (eg. spending a long time in a loud busy environment / being around others who are expressing big feelings / working on tasks that feel challenging)
- There’s something I need to say or express, but I’m nervous about the response I’ll get (eg. I want to go for a sleepover but I think my parents will say no / I broke a dish and I’m worried I will get in trouble / I don’t want to go to the birthday party but I’m nervous my friend will be mad if I RSVP “no”)
Internalizing our emotions is a way that our minds and bodies try to keep us safe. Sometimes it’s quite adaptive in the moment – it can stop us from crying or having a potentially embarrassing meltdown. It can take the big unshaped fear (what if the other kids don’t want to play with me?) and turn it into something concrete (my stomach hurts so I don’t think I can go to the party). It can shift our focus from scary feelings to a physical sensation instead.
It’s so cool that our bodies step in and try to protect us. I’m grateful that my brain and my stomach worked together to support me. But let’s be honest, living life with a stomach ache really sucks.
Here’s the good news: there are other options! As an art therapist, I help kids learn how to tune into their emotions and find safe ways to communicate them. The goal is to help kiddos EXTERNALIZE their emotional experience, rather than keeping it all in.
We learn how to NOTICE when something doesn’t feel right, to IDENTIFY what it is that’s bothering us, to COMMUNICATE our experience, and to SELF REGULATE (return to a neutral emotional and physical state). Once we develop skills in these areas, we eliminate the need for our bodies to absorb our emotions and turn them into physical symptoms. As a result we experience far fewer, and shorter lasting, tummy aches.
While this deeper work tends to happen over time in a therapeutic relationship, many children have sore tummies periodically, and not all children experiencing emotional tummy aches will require (or have access to) individual therapy. So this month I’m sharing a simple activity that families can try at home as a first step for sending love to sore tummies.
This activity invites you to really honour your child’s experience. It acknowledges their stomach pain as real and meaningful.
First, I invite you to spend some time creating a special tool (a heart pillow) as a symbol of love and care for your child’s sore tummy. Then, I invite you to use your newly crafted tool to practice a breathing technique that will help to calm your child’s nervous system, relax their stomach muscles, and hopefully offer some pain relief.
After completing this activity together, you and your kiddo might be able to discover some connections between their physical sensations and their emotional experiences. And if you don’t share an “aha” moment, that’s totally okay too. Simply making crafts and taking deep breaths together have so many positive mental and physical health benefits.
So, let’s make a heart pillow for belly breathing!
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Two pieces of felt
- Cardboard heart shape
- Scissors (option to use pinking shears for zig zag effect)
- Hot glue gun
- Calming essential oil (optional)
Here’s what you do:
Click the “play” button in the middle of the image below to watch a video demonstration with step-by-step instructions:
If videos aren’t your jam, here’s a recap:
First, trace the cardboard heart shape onto two pieces of felt. Use two different colours if you like.
Cut out the heart shapes. I used a pair of pinking shears to get a zig zag pattern along the edge, but that’s not necessary – regular scissors work great too!
Add hot glue around the edge of one felt heart. Leave a small space without glue (this is where the opening will be, where you can add in the stuffing).
Quickly before the hot glue dries, press the second felt heart on top of the one with the glue. Make sure that the open space is big enough for you to add stuffing inside the pocket.
Add stuffing inside the heart pillow. Use your fingers to move the stuffing into the top sections of the heart.
When the pillow is almost full, add a few drops of calming essential oil. I used lavender but peppermint, orange, or a calming blend might be nice too. Invite your child to choose the scent that they like best and experience as the most pleasant. If you don’t have any essential oils, no worries. You can just skip this step.
Finish adding stuffing until the pillow is full. Seal the pillow by adding hot glue along the open space. Press the two pieces of felt together.
Decorate and personalize your heart pillow! Use Sharpies to add a positive affirmation, some calming words, or a comforting symbol. This is an opportunity to cultivate some love for your emotional experience and for your sensitive, caring, hard-working tummy.
Now your heart pillow is ready for belly breathing!
Lie flat on your back. Place your heart pillow on your abdomen. Take a deep breath in, and watch as your pillow rises as your belly expands with the breath. Try to inhale so deeply that you can smell the essential oil in your pillow. Exhale completely, and watch your pillow gently fall as your belly contracts. Repeat. Imagine sending lots of love down to your belly as you breathe in, and sending lots of love out as you exhale. Continue with this breathing technique until your tummy relaxes and you start to feel a little bit better. (Thank you Yoga with Adriene for teaching me the “Lots of love in, lots of love out” breath mantra!)
- Sew the felt pieces together instead of using hot glue
- Decorate the pillow with pom poms, buttons, ribbons, etc.
- If you don’t have these materials on hand, or you would like to get started with the breathing technique right away, use a stuffed animal instead of a heart pillow. This breathing technique is also referred to as “Breathing Buddy” – here’s a video demonstration from children’s’ yoga instructors Yo Re Mi
Rationale (here’s why I love this activity):
- This activity honours and validates your child’s very real physical experience of pain, while at the same time offering a way to relax and hopefully experience some relief. By doing something to take care of and send love to their sore tummy, this activity contrasts other responses your child may have received in the past (eg. “There’s nothing wrong with your stomach / you’re not sick / it’s just in your head / you need to get over it.”) This activity says, “Your pain is real, and we are going to spend some time listening, being curious, and helping your body to relax.”
- Creating the pillow and using it for belly breathing are both activities that connect us with our bodies.
- Making the pillow is a creative act of self love and self care, which can feel empowering. Creating something special for ourselves offers us a sense of control that we are taking an action to help ourselves feel better. The pillow is a tool we can use whenever we aren’t feeling well. It’s a symbol of self love and self care that we can return to whenever we need it.
- Belly breathing is a physical self regulation strategy, so it’s a great fit for tending to physical pain and discomfort. Physical regulation (physically calming and relaxing our bodies) is necessary before we can move on to emotional regulation (identifying and expressing how we are feeling).
- Breath is a tool that is always accessible, no matter where we are or what we have with us. Once your kiddo learns how taking deep breaths can help them to calm down, ease their physical pain, and tune into their emotional experience, they can use this tool at school, at a sleepover, in the car – anywhere!
Some things you might talk about:
- Before beginning this activity, ask your child to rate their tummy pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst tummy ache your child has experienced. Check in after making the pillow and ask them to rate their pain again. Then check in after trying a few rounds of belly breathing and ask your kiddo to rate their tummy ache again. If the number doesn’t change, that’s okay. But chances are that a creative distraction, an empowering task, and some deep breathing will bring that number down even just a bit. Another key element is YOUR care and attention, and the fact that through this activity you are listening to and honouring your child’s experience. If the pain rating did shift, ask your child what they think contributed to the change. This can be a great source of ideas to try the next time they have a tummy ache.
- Invite your child to wonder with you what their tummy ache is communicating. Share the list from the beginning of this post, and ask if any of these might be the reason why THEIR tummy is hurting. Offer alternative ways for your child to share their reason with you – they might feel more comfortable drawing a picture, writing a note, sending a text, or whispering in your ear.
- If your child is able to identify the cause of the tummy ache, it may be helpful to do some problem solving together or to make an action plan for next steps. If you’re not sure what that might look like, art and play therapists are experts at helping families with this!
- It’s important to note that if your kiddo experiences lots of tummy aches, they are probably used to internalizing their emotional experiences and they likely won’t know what it is that’s bothering them. That’s okay. Simply asking “What is your tummy trying to tell us?” is a powerful first step to helping your child discover the connection between their emotional and physical experiences. It opens the door to communication and sends the message that your child’s experience is important to you, and you want to know about and understand it.
- Share with your child some basic science behind WHY their tummy hurts when they are upset, and WHY it helps to take deep breaths. This article from the Child Mind Institute provides a lovely summary. (In my experience, children are really interested in these facts, and the facts reinforce the power of the tool they are creating.)
If you and your child could use some support with understanding and managing emotional tummy aches, or building skills to reduce their frequency, art therapy is often a great fit for this! I’m just an email away if you’d like to learn more about working with me directly.
Sending so much love to all the sore tummies out there. You’ve got this!
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT
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