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  • Writer's picturerasmusdahlj

Worry Dolls In Pediatrics and Psychiatry: Easing the Pain One Day at a Time

4 year old kid playing with a mayan worry doll

Once upon a time in Guatemala, the Sun God granted his daughter, princess Ixmucane, a special gift that can take away all the worries in the world. This legend inspired the making of traditional Guatemalan worry dolls.

Over time, Mayan children would share their worries with the doll at bedtime, put the doll under their pillow, and go to sleep hoping Ixmucane would hear their sorrows and solve their problems before they wake up the next day.

There were no counselors or psychiatrists in the remote Highland villages — only these tiny little trouble dolls that warded off nightmares and comforted young children whenever they had problems. Surely, there’s a nugget of wisdom in putting worries into words and transferring them to a worry doll, rather than keeping them bottled up inside.

Psychologists who swear by talk therapy have recognized the power of speech when it comes to dealing with emotional pain. According to UCLA psychologist Matthew Liberman, PhD, verbalizing negative emotions can take your worries away. Along with his colleagues, he tested this hypothesis in two separate studies. In their methodology, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brain of the participants. In both studies, the results of the brain research suggest that when putting emotions into words, especially bad feelings, this can start up the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex, which inhibits the parts of the brain that are responsible for emotional pain.

Today, worry dolls are used in pediatrics and psychiatry, especially in cases of trauma and abuse.

A Mayan artisan handcrafting a worry doll

Small Hands to Hold in Uncertain Times

In May 2017, just after Ariana Grande wrapped up her concert with a final song, a terrorist detonated a home-made bomb in the Manchester Arena. The attack left 22 concertgoers dead, 123 injured, and more than 800 psychologically scarred. Many of them are young children who have witnessed a fun, wholesome event turn into unspeakable chaos — fire burning wild, bodies being violently knocked down, and shrapnel tearing through the young people making their way out of the crowded exit.

Individuals and organizations poured in to help the affected children cope with and recover from their fear and trauma. One support group, the Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation used Guatemalan worry dolls as part of their proprietary clinical health approach, SENSE. It has 5 key interventions: Stabilization, Education, Normalization, Social Support, and Engagement.

The SENSE technique, which is regarded as best practice not only in the NHS NICE guidance but also in broader trauma literature, is “developed to be kind to children,” according to Nick Taylor, Chief Executive of the Peace Foundation. The Foundation’s caseworkers give each child a bag of trouble dolls that will act as a trustworthy listener, creating a bridge between the child and the caseworker to support their recovery and monitor PTSD symptoms.

Across the pond, the Maryland State Department of Education employed trouble dolls in one of their learning projects under the health category. Designed by Kelley Fujii and Candace Desonier for 7th grade language arts students, the Worry Doll Project served as a method to discuss and reflect on the theme of determination. After learning about the legend and tradition of the Mayan worry doll and the determination of the Mayan people, students made their own trouble dolls to be donated to children in hospitals, and wrote worry doll poems explaining the dolls to the recipients.

These are only a few of the many instances in which Guatemalan worry dolls are used in modern day pediatrics and psychiatry to help little ones cope with overwhelming emotions and experiences.

Worry dolls are for adults, too. The psychological advantages of talking to a worry doll, which includes providing comfort and clarity, teaching healthy detachment, defining priorities, and practicing grounding techniques are beneficial to people of all ages, especially when worrying too much can make anyone physically ill.

Guatemalan mother carrying her child down the road

What Happens When You Worry Too Much

Grownups know there are definitely no monsters hiding under the bed. Nevertheless, there are many threats and challenges that bother us every day. Will the car start tomorrow? Can this week’s paycheck cover all the household expenses? Should you have turned down that invitation?

Chronic emotional stress due to excessive worrying and anxiety can produce a host of health problems, when the fight or flight response is frequently triggered and the sympathetic nervous system releases high amounts of cortisol and other stress hormones. Abnormally high levels of stress hormones can cause physical reactions, such as difficulty concentrating, dizziness, fast heartbeat, fatigue, headaches, irritability, muscle pain and tension, and shortness of breath, among others.

Stress hormones increase sugar levels and fats (triglycerides) in the blood, which are used as fuel. However, when they aren’t used for physical activities, the chronic stress and overflowing hormones can lead to serious consequences, including short-term memory loss, digestive disorders, premature coronary artery disease, suppression of the immune system, and even heart attack.

Furthermore, excessive worrying and anxiety can also result in depression and suicidal thoughts if left untreated.

This goes to show that stress and worrying affect many of the systems of your body. Although it isn’t the stress itself that makes you ill, the body’s response to the stress can profoundly influence all the interacting systems and bring physical and psychological illnesses.

There are things you can do to avoid the damage caused by stress, such as appropriate lifestyle changes and healthy ways of responding to anxiety. Telling a worry doll your problems, no matter how big or small, is one of the healthiest, most natural ways to deal with emotional stress, one day at a time.

The idea is pretty simple and straightforward: at the end of the day, you take your worry doll out of the bag and assign them a worry to work on while you're sleeping. It can be anything you wish. Once the doll gets its assignment, you place them under the pillow. When you wake up in the morning, you put them back in their bag so they can rest from worrying all night in your stead.

A large pile of worry dolls

Wholesale Worry Dolls

If you’re looking for authentic Guatemalan worry dolls to give as a heartwarming gift, donate to children who need them, or sell to trouble doll enthusiasts in your area, we at Handicraft Products La Selva, S.A. (From the Mayan People to You) can provide you wholesale Worry People customized to your needs. Since 1986, we have been manufacturing and exporting Mayan handicrafts.

For more information, tell us what you wish for your worry doll, and we’d be happy to show you our comprehensive catalogue and make a bridge between you and the ethnic Mayan artisans in the highlands of Guatemala.

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