I love body scans. I find them a great way to get into my body, sometimes helping me relax, but more often helping me with pain management. I do remember the first time I did one though. The thought I had, “this sounds terrifying! Why would I want to move towards the pain that I’m already experiencing?!” And yet, there is a ton of research showing that many, many, many other people with pain conditions have had the same experience as I have. As with any mindfulness practice, the goal isn’t actually pain relief. It’s 5, 10, 15, 20 or more minutes of doing nothing but noticing what’s happening within, as you move through different parts of your body.
If you’re not familiar with mindfulness and have no idea what a body scan is, don’t run away yet (actually no one should be running away at all – that’s the opposite of what we want to do here!). A body scan is a mindfulness practice in which you are lying down (or sitting, depending on what type of mindfulness you’re doing). You begin by focusing on your breath, and then slowly move through each part of your body beginning with either the top of your head or your toes, just noticing what is happening in your experience. Once we’ve moved through every part of our bodies, we notice the entire body as a whole, and then usually return to our breath before finishing. You can also breathe into parts of your body that feel tense or have more pain, using your breath as a way to help them release (though that’s not always possible, and I personally don’t normally use my breath this way). Here’s a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living), “another way to work with pain when it comes up during the body scan is to let your attention go to the region of greatest intensity. This strategy is best when you find it difficult to concentrate on different parts of your body because the pain in one region is so great. Instead of scanning, you just breathe in to and out from the pain itself.”
What I think the body scan really teaches us, and why it can be so powerful (with regular practice) for chronic pain is that it is really about acceptance. We learn to accept sensations more easily when we can just notice them, without being over taken by them. When we learn that we can move our attention to other areas of our bodies, and see that the pain isn’t always as great as we think it is. Yes, I said think it is, because we all have thoughts about our pain. Acceptance, and turning towards pain can help us improve a number of things, according to the research: reducing pain-related distress, our perceived ability to participate in daily activities, our perceived likelihood of pain interfering with our social relationships, and even desire for opioid (and other pain medication) use (not to say we will use less though). Most of the research comes from people practicing for 10-20 minutes/day for anywhere from 2-8 weeks. Now, imagine long-term regular practice. One of the explanations for why this works is that it increases our interoceptive (inner) awareness and stimulates the parts of the brain involved in that process.
Sometimes when I practice a body scan, I do notice pain that I didn’t before. Very subtle pain in my hands, or a bit of a headache I didn’t even realize I had. And I get that can be distressing for some people. This is why I approach it with curiosity. How did I not notice that before? What am I noticing instead? Is any of my pain really as bad as I sometimes think it is? And sometimes I fall asleep during the body scan (especially if I’m laying down, so I recommend sitting) because the process can be relaxing, even though that’s not the point. Again, I must emphasize the goal of any mindfulness is to do nothing! Not to achieve a certain result (like less pain). Just do nothing (or in this case scan your body) and see what happens! Try it out and let me know your thoughts. Keep making the most of it everyone!
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