Ease Stress by Tuning In to Your Body—Here’s How
Are you quick to notice when your body temperature rises, the digestive motions of your stomach, or when your heart rate increases? This ability to sense the internal goings-on of your organs and systems is called interoception. When you perceive these signals, you’re tapping into the channel of communication between your body and brain, which is pretty incredible.
So, why is it important for our brains and bodies to talk to each other?
Essentially, many of our body’s needs and processes are revealed to us in the form of sensations. On a basic level, these sensations occur when our body sends signals to our brain to drive us to meet our needs and keep our organs and systems ticking as they should. For example, when we feel hungry, we often also feel “hangry”—hunger’s emotional sidekick—which lets us know we’re due another dose of calories and motivates us to seek out our next meal.
Becoming Body Aware
People vary a lot in how aware they are of the tingles, twinges, and movements happening in their body day-to-day. We also react to sensations and try to make sense of them in our own ways.
These questions may help you reflect on how you normally respond to body signals:
- How do you typically react if you notice unpleasant or surprising sensations in your body?
- Are you hypervigilant to changes in your body?
- Are you curious about unpleasant bodily sensations or do you try to get rid of them?
- Do you trust your body?
Body Awareness and Anxiety
Some of us focus heavily on sensations in our bodies and worry about the cause of these feelings a lot more. For example, if you have health worries, you may have legitimate concerns about specific pangs of discomfort you notice. If you’re constantly looking out for warning signals and thinking the worst about odd or surprising sensations you notice, this may bring about feelings of anxiety.
Or, if you've suffered panic attacks, you might worry that you’ll start to feel anxious in public spaces because this has happened before, which can, in turn, lead you to become hypersensitive to the first signs of panic when out and about. A sudden increase in your heart rate while walking may be misread as the start of an attack. This could fuel the cycle of anxiety and make you more motivated to monitor what’s happening in your body.
On the flip side, more trusting and balanced forms of body awareness can be beneficial to us. A greater ability to turn your attention to body sensations and a greater trust in the body has shown to be related to lower anxiety. What’s more, trusting your body, and feeling safer and more at home in it, has also been linked to better mental well‑being.
The good news: We can nurture more helpful forms of body awareness by practicing mindfulness.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Many mindfulness and contemplative practices ask you to actively bring your awareness to internal sensations, such as the feeling of the breath, which can strengthen the mind-body connection.
When we're asked in traditional mindfulness practices to bring our attention to the present moment without judgment and to focus on the body, we're practicing the art of mindful acceptance—“sitting with” sensations that come and go without trying to analyze them or push them away.
Tuning into feelings in your body from an open-minded perspective more often could help you break down some of the negative associations you’ve built up around unpleasant or unwanted bodily sensations.
As an example—mindfulness training has been shown to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and, researchers suggest, has helped patients observe sensations in their gut and any worries they had without reacting to them, which then lessened feelings of anxiety, as well as IBS symptoms.
Mindfulness can also deepen your insight into the links between bodily sensations and your emotions. In fact, one study found a mindfulness training program, involving daily body scans and breathing meditations, boosted people’s ability to use bodily sensations to manage their emotions.
Connect with Your Body
If you’re experiencing anxiety to the point where it's interfering with your everyday life and ability to do the things you want, it’s important to seek out the help and support you need.
If your anxiety isn't debilitating and you’d like to experiment with a mindful body-awareness exercise, here’s a typical body scan practice you can try today.
As you progress through the exercise, try to notice what thoughts or sensations in the body come up for you. To begin, get comfortable either sitting or lying down.
1. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, paying attention to the feelings of the inhalation and exhalation in your chest, nose, and stomach.
2. After a few breaths, focus on your toes—what do you feel? Are they hot, cold? It’s okay if there are no sensations to explore. Next move to the soles of your feet, and then to the tops of your feet.
3. Moving up your legs, focus on your calves, then your knees, and on up to your thighs, pelvis, and buttocks. Continue to breathe normally, noticing any feelings of tension.
4. If your mind wanders to thoughts about what these sensations mean, acknowledge them and gently bring your attention back to the exercise.
5. Next, bring your awareness to your lower back and the feeling of your weight on the ground or the back of the chair.
6. Moving over to your abdomen, tune into what’s happening in your stomach area. Do you hold any tension here?
7. Keep moving upward, noticing sensations in your chest and upper back. Do you feel relaxed in this area or is there tightness? Try to just observe any sensations and acknowledge any thoughts or feelings you have without trying to change them.
8. When you’re ready, move to your shoulders and neck, and lastly, up to your face. Try to focus on each part, first on your chin and mouth, then on your nose and cheeks. Up to your ears, eyes, and eyelids, and finally to your forehead and the top of your head.
9. Take a few moments to feel your whole body as one, and continue to breath normally, feeling your breath move in and out.
10. When you’re ready, open your eyes. Reflect for a moment on how you found the practice and congratulate yourself for completing it.
If you'd like to further your practice, you can also try one of our guided body scan meditations here.
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