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If you’ve ever had butterflies in your stomach before giving a presentation or felt sick when you had to deliver bad news, that’s your body reacting to your emotional state. With body scan meditation, you can learn to recognize those physical feelings in your body and more. Body scan meditation may help you calm down and manage your physical and emotional feelings when you’re overwhelmed, sad, or anxious.
What is a body scan meditation?
You may be familiar with mindfulness meditation and its benefits. Body scan meditation is a type of mindfulness meditation with similar benefits.
Mindful meditation is when you become aware of your thoughts or feelings while sitting or lying quietly. You notice these sensations but don’t judge them as good or bad. This practice quiets your busy mind, allowing it to rest for as long as you meditate (Black, 2011).
With body scan meditation, you pay close attention to your whole body and how it feels, by mentally scanning from your feet to the top of your head (or in reverse) in a slow and deliberate progression.
One of the most researched and well-known meditation programs is the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. There are various mindfulness techniques taught in the program. Body scan meditation is one of the more important components (Clark, nd).
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
What are the benefits of a body scan meditation?
Consciously focusing on your body helps you develop deep awareness of your physical sensations and how they relate to your emotions. Recognizing where you hold your stress and tension in your body may help you gain insight into your feelings and thoughts. This information may lead to improved wellness for your physical and mental health.
Here are the top seven benefits of body scan meditation:
1. Helps lessen anxiety
You may not even be aware of the anxiety-based tension you’re holding in your body until you do a quick body scan. Once you can recognize when and where you feel tension, you may be able to release these sensations and improve your ability to deal with your anxiety.
A meta-analysis of 47 studies showed that mindful meditation practices like body scan meditation help decrease anxiety. This type of meditation can even be helpful for people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) (Goyal, 2014).
2. Decreases stress levels
It’s hard to avoid stress nowadays. When cortisol (also known as the “stress hormone”) levels are chronically high, your physical and mental health can suffer. Increased cortisol levels can lead to various problems, including poor sleep, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, a weakened immune system, and high blood pressure. The high levels of cortisol and stress reactions become a vicious cycle where you feel like you can’t calm down. Doing a body scan meditation practice for at least eight weeks helps lower cortisol levels (Schultchen, 2019).
3. Improves sleep quality
Quality sleep is necessary for physical and mental health. Sleep disturbances may cause serious illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), obesity, depression, and anxiety. In severe or prolonged cases, these conditions can lead to heart attack and stroke (Hanson, 2020).
Regular body scanning meditation may help dial down the tension that is keeping you awake. Body scan meditation enables you to calm down, dampening anxiety that may be causing your sleep deprivation. Studies suggest that a mindful practice like body scan meditation may be effective for some sleep disorders (Rusch, 2019).
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): symptoms and diagnosis
4. Reduces chronic pain
Chronic pain is any pain in your body lasting longer than three months. While pain may be felt in the body, chronic pain also has a psychological component. People with chronic pain suffer more depression and anxiety than people without. They are also at higher risk of suicide due to their pain. Chronic pain can impact all aspects of a person’s life, making it essential to address it as soon as possible (Dydyk, 2020).
While body scan meditation may not completely stop the pain, it can help change your outlook and thoughts about the pain. You don’t have to do an extended body scan meditation to see the benefits. Even short-term body scan meditations may help with chronic pain. A randomized, controlled study with 55 participants found a 10-minute body scan meditation done in a clinical setting quickly relieved chronic pain in some people (Ussher, 2014).
5. Improves self-awareness
One of the hallmarks of mindfulness is being self-aware. Body scan meditations allow you to tune into what you’re feeling rather than just pushing your feelings aside. If you’re feeling anxious, you may have physical symptoms like chest pain, rapid heart rate, or an upset stomach. You may have cognitive symptoms like fear of losing control or poor memory. You may have behavioral symptoms like pacing, feeling agitated or restless, or have trouble speaking. You may not recognize why you’re experiencing these symptoms. Body scan meditations may help (Chand, 2021).
Studies find that people who do body scan meditations as part of their self-care practice have greater levels of self-awareness (Fischer, 2017). Self-awareness, or the ability to note your thoughts and feelings without judgment, may increase your overall well-being, possibly even helping you make better decisions (Miriams, 2013).
6. Helps you relax
Body scan meditations are recommended for people with chronic pain, stress, and symptoms of anxiety. “Holding it all in,” whether mentally or physically, causes heightened muscular tension and tightness. Tension increases cortisol levels and may cause gastrointestinal issues, inflammation, insomnia, pain, tension headaches, and many other symptoms (Thau, 2021).
Most forms of meditation, including body scan meditation, activate your parasympathetic nervous system—the part of your nervous system that helps you relax—by focusing on the breath and the body. When you breathe deeply, like is often done in body scan meditation, you lower the intensity of your anxiety-feeding sympathetic nervous system so you can decrease your tension and become more relaxed (Gerritsen, 2018).
With consistent body scan meditation practice, you may better cope with stressors in the future. The relaxation response can lower your frustration level, allowing you to have a more patient and accepting attitude toward your feelings, your body’s response to stress, and the events in your life.
How to calm anxiety: 5 relaxation techniques
7. Improves focus
Body scan meditation, like other types of mindfulness, gently forces you to focus and pay attention. Mindful practices, including body scan meditation, help improve your attention, concentration, and focusing skills with the potential to keep your brain sharp as you age (Zanesco, 2018).
How do you do a body scan meditation?
Body scan meditation has a few simple steps (Panath, 2017):
- You should be in a comfortable position. You can sit in a chair or lie down.
- Breathe deeply and intentionally. Let your breath slow down as you breathe into your belly. Don’t let your shoulders go up and down with your breath. Instead, allow your belly to expand and contract. Imagine a balloon in your belly inflating with each inhale and deflating with each exhale.
- Begin by bringing awareness to your body. Start from your feet, moving up towards your head, or do it from head to toe if you’d like. At each body part, notice what you feel there. If you feel pain, accept the pain and your feelings towards the pain, and breathe through it. Move to the following body part when you are ready.
- Continue scanning through your entire body. Pay attention to where you’re holding tension. For some people, the back or neck can be prime areas of tension. Pay attention to areas of pain, pressure, or tightness. While a true body scan meditation often only involves noticing these discomforts and not necessarily trying to change them, you can imagine sending a breath to those painful areas. This helps to relieve tension at the moment.
Recognizing where you hold stress in your body is important because, even when you’re not meditating, if you feel tension in that spot, you now know you can send a breath to that place of tension and release it.
Meditation for anxiety: does it work?
How to incorporate body scan meditation in your life
The thought of adding meditation into your life might feel intimidating at first. After all, your life is so busy—how can you possibly make time for this?! But making this a part of your life doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Some simple strategies can make this practice very manageable and helpful.
- Create a routine: Setting a time and place to do a daily meditation practice conditions your body and mind.
- Choose the right time for you: Some people like to check in first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. Other people prefer doing a body scan meditation before sleep so they can sleep better. See what works best for you.
- Use a guided body scan meditation to start: Many of us are judgmental about our bodies, and it could be challenging to deeply relax while doing a body scan meditation. It may be helpful to use an app, YouTube, or podcast on guided body scan meditation when you’re first starting.
- Know that there’s no perfection in meditation: Do the best you can. There is no aim, no right or wrong way to do it, and no reason to worry that you might not be “good” at it.
- Aim for a few minutes a day: For some people, the thought of taking 30 minutes to do any sort of meditation is very stressful. Depending on your time availability, you can extend or shorten the time it takes to do a body scan.
You may want to do mini-body scans where you quickly scan your body to see where you are holding tension. For example, some people hold their jaws very tight. Recognizing you are holding tension there and gently releasing it is a quick form of body scan meditation. If you’re working at your desk and find yourself slumping, check in with your body and straighten yourself up. With practice, you might find these mini body scans can take only seconds to perform and help you let go of unneeded tension.
Body scan meditation and other mindfulness meditations are popular wellness practices for a reason. Virtually anyone can do them, and the emotional and physical benefits may help you improve your overall health. Speak to your healthcare provider if you notice your body scan meditation practice seems to increase your symptoms of depression or anxiety.
- Black, D. S. (2011) A brief definition of mindfulness. Mindfulness Research Guide. doi: 10.1.1.362.6829. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.362.6829&rep=rep1&type=pdf
- Chand, S. P., Marwaha, R., & Bender, R. M. (2021). Anxiety (nursing). In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.statpearls.com/articlelibrary/viewarticle/17728/
- Clark, GR. (n.d). Mindfulness-based stress reduction: MBSR body scan. Retrieved from https://mbsrtraining.com/mindfulness-exercises/mbsr-body-scan/
- Dydyk, A. M., Yarrarapu, S. N. S., & Conermann, T. (2020). Chronic pain. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.statpearls.com/ArticleLibrary/viewarticle/19536
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- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (2016). Meditation in depth. National Institute of Health (NIH). Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know
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- Schultchen, D., Messner, M., Karabatsiakis, A., Schillings, C., & Pollatos, O. (2019). Effects of an 8-week body scan intervention on individually perceived psychological stress and related steroid hormones in hair. Mindfulness, 10(12), 2532-2543. doi: 10.1007/s12671-019-01222-7. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-019-01222-7
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- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (2018). Cognitive aging and long-term maintenance of attentional improvements following meditation training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2(3), 259-275. doi: 10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1#Tab1
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.