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Body Scans For Beginners

An image of a doctor touching a transparent screen in front of them with a silhouette of a human body and it's nervous system.

While body scanning might sound basic, the truth is that our bodies are continually doing a lot of things to keep us alive that we don't notice. If you're a typical person sitting and reading this article, in the last 60 seconds: your heart beat 60-80 times, you took 12-18 breaths, you blinked 15-20 times, and you swallowed saliva at least once. More likely than not, you barely noticed it and that is only a fraction of what your body is doing minute to minute.

Our bodies are constantly sensing their environment and responding to it. In the fast paced environment of modern life where multi-tasking is seen as an expectation rather than an occasional necessity, our bodies can be overwhelmed. Living in the "Information Age" is great for a lot of reasons, but we are often so busy obtaining information, that we seldom take time to process it.

This information overload can create a processing back log for our bodies. The brain simply can't keep up, so it begins to prioritize what it thinks is the most important and tucks the rest away to be processed later. The place many people run into trouble is that "later" never comes. Taking even 5 minutes of your day to check in with your body can help to ground you and let your brain catch up.

The goal is to gain better understanding of what is happening in your body. This brief slow down frequently helps us to respond to our body's needs better in the long run.

In this article we'll cover:

  1. Getting Started: How to do a body scan.

  2. Sample Questions: Sensations to notice during body scans.

  3. Who should use body scans and why? Reviewing the research

Getting Started

  1. Plan a time to do your body scan when you can minimize distractions and interruptions.

  2. When you're ready, find a comfortable place where you can focus.

  3. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to bring your focus onto your body.

  4. Choose an area of your body to start with. Most people prefer to start at the top or the bottom, but you can choose to start wherever you'd like.

  5. As you bring your attention to and "scan" each part of your body, take note of how it feels.

    1. There are no right or wrong answers, for now we are just observing the sensations that come to mind in the moment.

    2. If you notice yourself beginning to judge and interpret the feelings, take a couple of deep breaths and return to your scan.

    3. If you start thinking about how to avoid a feeling that you don't like, know that this is normal. Try to set aside your desire to fix the feeling for a few moments. It may help to remind yourself that it is difficult to address a problem that you do not yet fully understand. Scanning is an investment in better understanding the body.

  6. Move from one part of the body to the next. Take time to scan your head, neck shoulders, arms, hands, chest, back, abdomen, pelvis, hips, and legs down to your feet.

Sample Questions

If you've never done a body scan before and have a hard time checking in with your body, try choosing just one body region and going through this list of questions.

  1. Is there pain present?

  2. Do you notice tension?

  3. Is there a sense of weight such as feeling heavy, or light?

  4. Do you notice pressure or touch contact?

  5. How does the temperature feel?

  6. Is there a swollen feeling?

  7. Does it feel dry, or wet?

  8. Is it itchy or inflamed?

  9. Does it feel weak, or strong?

  10. How is the energy level in this area?

  11. Do you sense any particular emotion in that area?

  12. Do you feel disconnected from that part of your body?

Keep in mind that you may not feel all of these sensations in an area all the time. This is just a list to get you thinking about types of sensations you may notice while doing your scan.

Many people have a natural tendency to avoid unpleasant feelings and sensations. This is especially true if pain is present, or you have experienced some kind of traumatic event. While the ability to ignore our bodies signals until an appropriate time is helpful and important, we also need to check in from time to time. If you have a lot of different symptoms, it can also help you to be less overwhelmed by giving you a chance to process them.

Who should use body scans, and why?

The research on body scans is still forthcoming. While some studies suggest potential benefits like improving sleep quality (1), reducing anxiety (2) and reducing pain (3), more study is needed. Another recent systematic review suggests that body scans alone may not produce significant health outcomes (4). This is common for many medical interventions however that work better when used in combination with other interventions. For example, most commercials for medications that lower cholesterol encourage you that the medication works best when combined with diet and exercise.

After you're done scanning, some research suggests that it's what you do with your body scan that counts (5). While performing the body scan, meditation experts discourage you from judging the sensation you experience as good, or bad. The goal is simply to increase awareness and allow yourself to accept what you are presently experiencing. They don't want you to worry about acting on the sensations while doing the scan.

Taking a brief period of time to allow your brain to process information can be good and teach your body to delay judging sensations long enough to get the rational part of your brain involved. This can make you less likely to react emotionally out of fear, panic, or in avoidance of a sensation.

If you don't return to thinking about and processing the sensations at some point however, it may leave some people feeling a loss of control. Gaining information that you can't act on can create helplessness or a feeling of anxiety for some people.

After you finish the body scan, taking time to judge the sensations you experienced may be helpful. This lets you decide which sensations are important for you to pay attention to, and which ones can be safely ignored. (See: Hurt vs. Harm & Car Alarms: Interpreting Chronic Pain)

For people who are prone to ignoring their symptoms, and sometimes miss signs of illness that they should have sought medical attention for, or for those whose lack of awareness of their symptoms prevents them from getting treatment, the scans can be helpful. If your hope is to use the body scan to better direct your treatment choices, it may help to look for trends in your symptoms. Recording the results of your body scan on a diagram page to track the results gives you information you can use. It can be a starting point for a discussion with your doctor. Using a chronic pain self-care journal like one of these can help you track your progress.

For others who already think about their symptoms frequently (ruminating), and experience thoughts that focus on overly negative scenarios about their symptoms (catastrophizing), drawing attention to their symptoms can sometimes be unhelpful. The brain works on a "use it or lose it" basis, and this can actually wire the brain to experience more pain over time. (See: Hurt vs. Harm: Reprogramming The Pain Alarm). The value in body scanning for these individuals may be in the scan itself and the ability to think about their body without negative judgements, and then stop thinking about it when not doing the scan.

If you're unsure about if body scanning is right for you, discuss it with a mental health provider. This article is intended for educational purposes and is not a replacement for individual medical advice. You are encouraged to seek evaluation of your specific mental health needs from a licensed provider before adding new elements to your self-care routine.

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