Notice how your feet feel. Are they on the ground? Swinging freely from a chair? Are your shoes pushing against your toes? Are they tingling, aching, full of unused energy?
You have just started a type of body scan meditation. This is a form of mindfulness meditation where instead of focusing primarily on your breath, you focus on the sensations in your body.
By directing your attention to how each part of your body feels, this type of meditation can help you better manage pain, stress, and anxiety.
Here's what you need to know about the health benefits of a body scan meditation, and how to practice it.
Mindfulness practices have a number of mental and physical benefits, and body scan meditation is no different.
Rebecca Wing, LCPC, a licensed therapist who co-founded the Mindfulness Center of Maine, says she recommends body scan meditation to everyone, and it is one of the first techniques she teaches clients.
Specifically, research has found that body scan meditation can benefit your health in the following ways:
Body scan meditation is a component of the 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, which is often used to treat chronic pain and other long-term illnesses.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR, specifically recommends body scans as an important form of meditation for dealing with pain. And, even on its own, research has found that body scan meditation can help manage pain.
For example, a randomized, controlled study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that a 10-minute body scan can help adults with chronic pain. The 55 participants were asked to report their pain before and after listening to a recording of either a body scan or a natural history reading. The group that listened to the body scan reported reduced pain after just one session.
A body scan can help release tension you don't even realize you are holding in your body, which often comes from stress or anxiety. Wing says if you can learn to recognize your body's physical signals and sensations, you'll improve your ability to deal with this anxiety.
A 2019 study of 47 healthy students found that those who listened to a recorded guided body scan had lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, after 8 weeks. In another study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 93 adults with generalized anxiety disorder participated in either MBSR or stress management education. The MBSR group had reduced symptoms of the anxiety disorder, based on a medically approved anxiety test.
Every form of mindfulness meditation is calming, and can relax your mind to get better sleep.
But as a natural treatment for insomnia, body scan meditation may be especially useful, and a much safer option than sleeping pills.
For example, a 2020 study of 54 teenagers suffering from insomnia found that body scan meditation improved the effects of cognitive behavioral therapy for treating insomnia. Teens who practiced body scan meditation reported waking up less after falling asleep, sleeping longer and better, and being less irritable upon waking.
Wing says she often recommends body scan meditation for clients who have experienced trauma, or those who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a 2015 study published in Mindfulness of 102 veterans with chronic PTSD, body scan meditation led to an improvement in symptoms.
The study used the PTSD Checklist to rate severity of 17 PTSD symptoms on a scale of 1 to 5. Symptoms include repeated disturbing dreams of the past, feeling jumpy or startled and feeling super alert. For the veterans that practiced body scan meditation, scores decreased by 5.5 points.
You can lengthen or shorten your body scan by breaking your body into bigger or smaller chunks. For instance, you can start with your toes, then move to the soles of your feet, then your heels. Or, if you have less time, you can start with your whole foot or even your entire leg and foot.
You can also do mini-body scans throughout the day. If you're at your computer and notice your shoulders are either too tense or slouching, pause and start checking in with parts of your body. It's something you can do right at your desk in your office, Wing says. If you have time, you could also walk to a quiet outdoor bench or even just your car.
"Push back from your computer, lift up at the chest and take some time to soften the muscles of the face," Wing says. "Practice a state of letting go of unnecessary tension — and that can be done in 3 to 5 minutes."
To establish a daily practice, it can be helpful to meditate at the same time every day and in the same place. This helps condition your body and establish a routine.
An early morning meditation can be helpful, as you likely won't end up running out of time or getting pulled in another direction. Alternatively, Wing says that her patients with anxiety or trauma find that doing it right before bed helps them fall asleep.
Of all the meditation practices, Wing says the body scan is one of the hardest to do alone as a beginner. "We're not used to paying attention to our body," she says. "We tend to frequently be afraid of it, reactive of it, judgmental of it."
That's why Wing recommends starting with a guided body scan meditation — ideally from a teacher. While there are plenty of guided meditation apps, Wing believes the personal relationship between a teacher and student helps fuel the practice. She actually records herself leading a body scan for her clients.