Studies Show...

It makes good sense that taking five deep breaths will calm stress. Our Breathing Butterfly project delivers a memorable butterfly that helps kids do just that: calm themselves by breathing deeply. When the butterfly opens its wings, the child breathes in. When the wings close, the child breathes out. So... what do studies say?

Sustained Stress is Unhealthy

Research has shown that stress leads to the release of cortisol.1 Sometimes, this bodily response, known as a "fight-or-flight" reaction can be useful; it can help us flee danger, in some acute situations. But not all stress is best handled with a fight-or-flight response, and long-term exposure to the cortisol our body releases in response to stress has been shown to cause harm in many different ways. Among these many negative health outcomes are: insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes.234 But there's even more bad news. Cortisol release has also been shown to reduce some components of memory performance.5 The bottom line we're addressing with this project is that long-term stress is unhealthy for growing brains.

Mindfulness Reduces Unhealthy Stress

One effective method of addressing these stress-related increases in cortisol is through use of MBSR, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction exercises, including visualizations. MBSR can reduce both base-line cortisol levels (the amount of cortisol generally present) and cortisol release during stressful events.6 MBSR practices that focus on breathing, or that develop awareness within the present moment, or that acknowledge emotions and circumstances without judgment, or that develop patience for self and others have all been shown to have a positive impact.7

The Elfenworks Foundation's Breathing Butterfly Project addresses the effects of high level and persistent stress among children using a visualization centered around a few deep breaths and a friendly butterfly. This project sprang up originally to help with high risk populations, but quickly was understood to be helpful in other areas of stress. Growing up can be stressful, and all kids experience stress, at various times. By providing kids with the resource for self-soothing, we equip kids with tools to help themselves through stress, and help them feel a little bit more in control of their own lives.

That's Why!

The tools on this website were developed to help you - the caring adult - to give children the opportunity to decrease the negative psychological and physiological effects of acute and chronic stress in their daily lives. And less stress can translate into better mental and physical health outcomes and more successful participation in educational, social, and community networks.

Our thanks to the researchers at The Center on Poverty and Inequality at Stanford University for providing the studies cited above.


1. Hammerfald, K., C. Eberle, M. Grau, A. Kinsperger, A. Zimmermann, U. Ehlert, and J. Gaab. “Persistent effects of cognitive-behavioral stress management on cortisol responses to acute stress in health subjects – A randomized controlled trial.” Psychoneuroendrocrinology 33 (2006): 333-39.
2. Dimsdale, Joel E., Paul Mills, Thomas Patterson, Michael Ziegler, and Elaine Dillon. “Effects of Chronic Stress on Beta-Edrenergic Receptors in the Homeless.” Psychosomatic Medicine 56 (1994): 290-95.
3. Hammerfald, K., C. Eberle, M. Grau, A. Kinsperger, A. Zimmermann, U. Ehlert, and J. Gaab. “Persistent effects of cognitive-behavioral stress management on cortisol responses to acute stress in health subjects – A randomized controlled trial.” Psychoneuroendrocrinology 33 (2006): 333-39.
4. Ranjit, Nalini, Elizabeth A. Young, and George A. Kaplan. “Material hardship alters the diurnal rhythm of salivary cortisol.” International Journal of Epidemiology 34 (2005): 1138-143.
5. Newcomer, John W., Gregg Selke, Angela K. Melson, Tamara Hershey, Suzanne Craft, Katherine Richards, and Amy L. Alderson. “Decreased Memory Performance in Healthy Humans Induced by Stress-Level Cortisol Treatment.” ARCH GEN PSYCHIATRY 56 (1999): 527-33.
6. MacLean, Christopher R.K., Kenneth G. Walton, Stig R. Wenneberg, Debra K. Levitsky, Joseph P. Mandarino, Rafiq Waziri, Stephen L. Hillis, and Robert H. Schneider. “Effects of the transcendental meditation program on adaptive mechanisms: Changes in hormone levels and responses to stress after 4 months of practice.” Psychoneuroendrocrinology 22 (1997): 277-95.
7. Carlson, Linda E., Michael Speca, Kamala D. Patel, and Eileen Goodey. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Relation to Quality of Life, Mood, Symptoms of Stress, and Immune Parameters in Breast and Prostate Cancer Outpatients.” Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (2003): 571-81.