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Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation are among a number of different complementary therapies that can help patients cope with the effects of cancer. Relaxation strategies can be adapted for children of different ages, and most strategies can be used in almost any setting. These techniques can reduce distress and help patients manage side effects such as pain, fatigue and nausea.

The sun shines through the treetops onto brown and yellow leaves.

Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation, can reduce distress and help patients manage side effects such as pain, fatigue and nausea.

Benefits of Relaxation Techniques During Cancer

The body’s natural response to relaxation includes a lower heart rate, slower breathing pattern, lower blood pressure, and feelings of enhanced well-being. Research has found that these techniques can help with a number of common problems experienced during cancer treatment including:

  • Pain
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Depression
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems

Types of Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation is a broad term used to describe a number of strategies that can reduce the effects of stress on the mind and body. Specific techniques include breathing exercises, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenic training.

  1. Breathing exercises focus on patterns of deep, slow, regular breathing. During stress, breathing is often fast and shallow. Heart rate and blood pressure also increase. When breathing is slow and deep, this changes signals in the brain, causing mental and physical relaxation.

    Breathing exercises are easy to learn and can be done anywhere. Some techniques involve inhaling and exhaling for specific counts. Others focus on how the belly and chest move. Patients can try different deep breathing exercises to see what works best for them.

    Deep breathing can be used alone or with other types of relaxation methods.

  2. Guided imagery uses a person’s imagination to create pleasant mental images in as much detail as possible, using all the senses. This mental picture often includes an image of a favorite place of escape.

    Using the imagination can cause physical changes in heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Positive images can also reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by creating a distraction or a mental escape.

    For children with cancer, guided imagery may help with worry, fear, stress, and anger as well as side effects such as pain and nausea. It can also be useful as a way to cope with medical procedures or manage sleep problems.

    Guided imagery may be led by a practitioner or self-guided. Tools such as a recorded instructor or a scripted outline may help a patient’s practice of guided imagery. Background sounds such as music or recorded sounds that match the images such as birds chirping in a forest or ocean waves can enhance the experience and encourage deeper connection to the imagined scenes.

  3. Autogenic training is a relaxation technique that involves a series of exercises, or formulas, designed to let go of stress in the body and mind. Sessions generally last up to 15 minutes and are performed in a relaxed posture while seated or lying down. By concentrating on body sensations such as warmth and heaviness in muscles and slowing heartrate and breathing, a person can refocus and find a more relaxed state.

  4. Progressive muscle relaxation involves controlled tensing and releasing of small groups of muscles, one at a time. This is done slowly, in a specific order and is often combined with deep breathing or imagery. By systematically tightening and relaxing muscles, a person becomes more aware of the body and can relax more fully.

One way to make progressive muscle relaxation more real to kids is to assign muscles a color. Tight muscles may be given a red, and the goal is to change them to a calm, relaxing color. Children can choose the color that makes sense to them and imagine the muscles changing color as they release the tension

Dr. Jenn Allen, pediatric psychologist

Relaxation techniques are safe for most people, and adverse effects from these strategies are uncommon. However, certain relaxation techniques could cause negative emotions or deepen existing mental health problems. It is also likely that certain techniques might work better for some people. Seek guidance from the care team before trying any complementary therapy.

  • Relaxation and meditation techniques do not replace conventional treatments. While these strategies may reduce symptoms, they should never replace therapies recommended by the child’s provider.
  • Always speak with a provider first. Check which techniques may be appropriate. Be sure to give a complete picture of what therapies may be considered.
  • Find a trained professional. For any therapy, the provider should have appropriate training and certification. Experience working with pediatric cancer patients is also important to make sure that patients are safe and receive the best care possible.

Relaxation and meditation techniques can have many benefits for children with cancer when used along with standard treatments. Many of these strategies can be adapted for a wide range of ages and can be used at any time. Because children can learn these techniques to do on their own whenever needed, they can have more control and greater confidence in coping with symptoms and health challenges.

These strategies can also be helpful for parents and caregivers. Research shows that lower levels of parental stress benefit children. In other words, if parents are calm and relaxed, children are more likely to be calm and relaxed. Children also learn coping strategies from parents. If parents use adaptive strategies to handle stress and fears associated with cancer, then children can find positive ways to manage their own stress.


Reviewed: June 2018

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