Feature Archive

Thinking Pain Away

Can guided imagery help?

WebMD Feature

July 3, 2000 -- When 10-year-old Amanda Mellencamp recently awoke in the middle of the night complaining of a tummy ache, her mother Ann didn't offer her Pepto-Bismol or simply invite her to snuggle up. Instead, she made a rather unorthodox suggestion: "Why don't you practice your imagery?" she asked.

So Amanda did. First she pictured a big, orange balloon inflating in her stomach and causing her stomach to hurt. Then she imagined herself drinking hot cinnamon tea to melt the balloon. As the imaginary balloon slowly disappeared, so did Amanda's pain. Twenty minutes later she was fast asleep, and the next day she felt fine.

Amanda is one of a growing number of children who are using mind-body techniques like guided imagery to cope with physical ailments. These therapies have become increasingly popular with adults in the past few years; now researchers are examining how well they might work with kids.

In fact, some experts say that kids may be even better than adults at using their imaginations to ease pain. "Adults will say, 'What do you mean there's a kitten? I don't see a kitten,' " says Susan J. Nathan, a Laguna Hills, Calif., psychologist who specializes in guided imagery. "Kids will jump right in and say, 'Oh yes, I see it -- and it has a white tail.' This type of play helps them relax, and we know that when people are in a relaxed state, they experience less pain."

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