Could body scanning help you get more in touch with your health?
Who doesn’t have the odd ache and pain now and then? A little twinge here and there or the hint of an underlying malaise. These background gripes are often the result of stress and tend to go largely ignored, but what if you could run your own holistic health check from the comfort of your home?
Research has shown that performing a 20-minute body scan each day could significantly reduce biological and psychological stress hormones in the body. “Body scanning is a sensory exercise where you mentally draw attention to each area of your body, and note any sensations or feelings as you go,” explains leading UK psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and body language expert Nick Davies (ndhypnotherapy.com), who uses the technique with patients in his practice. “It creates a mindful awareness not normally present, so if I said how warm is your left foot? your attention would be drawn there now, in the present.”
Originally used in Eastern spiritual practices, the body scan is often used in Buddhist, vipassana, or mindfulness meditations. More recently it has been adopted by more mainstream practitioners of CBT and mindfulness therapies to help bring sufferers of depression, stress and anxiety back to the present moment. So how does it work? “It’s a bit like a mental X-ray that slowly travels across your body,” says Iona Russell, hypnotherapist, life coach and author of Making Waves – a self-help guide to becoming unstuck (ionarussell.com), “Sometimes you can be so caught up in your stress, that you don’t realise that the physical pain you’re experiencing – such as headaches, back and shoulder pain, and tense muscles – is connected to your emotional state. Developing greater awareness of bodily sensations can help you feel more connected to your physical self and gain greater insight into potential causes of unwanted feelings. The goal is not to relieve the pain completely, but to get to know it and learn from it, so you can better manage it.”
When we’re stressed or anxious, as well as tensing our muscles, our breathing tends to be faster and shallower, we sometimes even hold our breath for short periods without realising it, which all has an impact on our overall wellbeing – think of how your body feels after a stressful day at work, or a sleepless night, that’s often when we notice stiffness or pain. “When we hold our breath, it can result in oxygen not getting to the parts of the body it needs to,” says Iona, “and this often results in high anxiety or stress held within the body. By mentally scanning yourself and breathing into different parts of your body, you are bringing greater awareness to every single part of your body, noticing any aches, pains, tension, or general discomfort.”
You don’t need any training to perform a body scan on yourself, but Nick advises against trying it when you’re angry, upset, anxious or feeling in a low mood. “The best time to practise is when you’re relaxed,” he says, “as stress and anxiety can give false signals. Calmness is the key.”
If you suffer with insomnia, Iona recommends trying the body scan before bed. “It can help you relax and unwind from all the stress of the day,” she says, “or if you don’t have a lot of time, you can do an abbreviated version of a body scan meditation by just sitting and noticing any place in your body that you’re carrying tension, rather than moving from part to part. This will become easier for you the more you practise.”
While body scan meditation involves little risk, Iona warns that mindfulness meditation can sometimes worsen depression or anxiety. “If you notice dark, unwanted thoughts or emotions, check in with a therapist before continuing,” she says. “The most important thing here is being open to what your body has to tell you. It can be helpful to keep a journal of your body scan meditation, making a small entry each time you practise. Jotting down what you experienced or how you felt before and after can provide helpful insight. Remember to be gentle and kind with yourself. This is not a forum for self-criticism or negative self-talk. Accept what is, and know that pain, tension and discomfort are impermanent. There is joy in the fact that you are taking this time to strengthen your relationship with yourself.
1. Find a quiet space without any distractions and sit or lie down comfortably.
2. Close your eyes and bring awareness to the body, calmly breathing in and out. Notice the feeling of your body against the bed, floor or seat. Where can you feel pressure? What does it feel like? Allow yourself to sink into the surface, feeling the weight of your body supported.
3. Whilst continuing to breathe deeply and evenly, draw your attention to your toes, notice any sensations. Do you feel heaviness or lightness, tingling or tightness, coolness or warmth? Ask yourself: what is this sensation trying to communicate with me? You may notice nothing at all, if that happens, acknowledge that, too, and move on with your scan without concern or judgement.
4. Systematically work your way up your body, focusing your full attention on each area as you go. Spend as long as you need to, paying attention to how each body part feels.
5. Be curious and open to what you are experiencing, intentionally releasing one body part before moving onto the next.
6. You may notice your attention starts to wander. Over time, you will be able to hold your attention for longer periods of time, but for now simply acknowledge that your attention has wandered and bring it back, gently and kindly, to the present moment.
7. When you’ve reached the end of your body scan, spend a few moments breathing and feeling your body as a whole. 8Open your eyes and slowly begin to move your body bit by bit, as you move into the present moment.
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