Enter the body scan, a meditative practice that involves mindfully scanning your body for sensations of pain, tension, or anything out of the ordinary.
Developing greater awareness of bodily sensations can help you feel more connected to your physical self and gain greater insight into potential causes of unwanted feelings.
This knowledge can make it easier to address what’s wrong, leading to improved wellness in body and mind.
Experts have found evidence to suggest meditation can promote physical and emotional wellness in multiple ways, such as:
- improved sleep
- anxiety and stress relief
- greater self-awareness
- increased self-compassion
- reduced pain
reduced cravingswhen quitting smoking
Here’s a look at some of the most heavily researched benefits.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a regular body scan practice just before bedtime can be particularly helpful at relieving insomnia.
What makes meditation so effective for sleep problems?
Many people have a hard time getting restful sleep when they feel worried or stressed. Because meditation can help you relax, let go of troubling thoughts, and feel calmer overall, a regular meditative practice can often ease distress that’s keeping you awake.
For stress and anxiety
If you’ve ever experienced significant pain, you probably had trouble thinking about anything else. This is the daily experience of many people living with chronic pain. Understandably, this type of pain can have a significant negative impact on your life.
Meditation may not necessarily stop pain. But outcomes of meditation, such as increased awareness of your body and emotional state, can help change the way you think about that pain. Increased awareness and acceptance of pain can lead to an improved outlook.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a meditation teacher and expert on stress, recommends body scan meditations as the most helpful type of meditation for pain.
You can think of a body scan as a mental X-ray that slowly travels across your body.
Here’s how to give it a try:
- Get cozy. Start by getting comfortable. Lie down or sit in a position that allows you to stretch your limbs easily.
- Focus. Close your eyes and begin focusing on your breath. Notice the sensation of your breath filling and leaving your lungs as you inhale and exhale.
- Choose where to start. Begin anywhere you like — left hand, left foot, right hand, right foot, the top of your head. Focus on that spot as you continue breathing slowly and deeply.
- Pay attention. Open your awareness to sensations of pain, tension, discomfort, or anything out of the ordinary.
- Go slow. Spend anywhere from 20 seconds to 1 minute observing these sensations.
- Acknowledge. If you begin to notice pain and discomfort, acknowledge and sit with any emotions these sensations bring up. Accept them without criticism. For example, if you feel frustrated and angry, don’t judge yourself for these emotions. Notice them and let them pass.
- Breathe. Continue breathing, imagining the pain and tension decreasing with each breath.
- Release. Slowly release your mental awareness on that specific part of your body and redirect it to your next area of focus. Some people find it helpful to imagine releasing one body part as they breathe out and moving on to the next as they breathe in.
- Move along. Continue the exercise along your body in a way that makes sense to you, whether you move from top to bottom or up one side and down the other.
- Note drifting thoughts. As you continue to scan across your body, note when your thoughts begin to drift. This will happen probably more than once, so don’t worry. You haven’t failed, and you can easily get your thoughts back on track. Just gently return your awareness to where you left off scanning.
- Visualize and breathe. Once you finish scanning parts of your body, let your awareness travel across your body. Visualize this as liquid filling a mold. Continue inhaling and exhaling slowly as you sit with this awareness of your whole body for several seconds.
- Come back. Slowly release your focus and bring your attention back to your surroundings.
You may notice some improvement immediately. Then again, the body scan might not seem to have any effect at all. It could also awaken your awareness around discomfort, making it seem worse.
This might put you off meditation entirely, but try to commit to a few more attempts to see if things improve.
Plenty of people don’t enjoy meditation or notice any benefits the first few times they try it. But experts suggest it’s still worth meditating regularly, even if you don’t love it.
Consistent meditation can lead to positive changes in your brain, including:
- improved focus
- increased compassion and other positive emotions
- greater ability to cope with unwanted emotions
If it helps, you can think of meditation as an exercise for your brain. Maybe you don’t feel like working up a sweat all the time, especially if you’ve already had a rough day. But once you get going, your workout generally becomes easier, right?
When you finish exercising, you might even feel pretty good, and keeping up an exercise routine usually makes it easier over time.
If a body scan or any type of meditation doesn’t seem to do much for you the first time, try not to get discouraged. It can take some time to get used to meditation, and that’s completely normal.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Don’t worry about perfection
When it comes to meditation, there’s no single “right” approach. In the end, the best type of meditation is what works for you.
Many people find it’s most helpful to meditate at the same time every day and in the same place. This can help you form the habit, but don’t worry too much if you have to cut it short sometimes.
Meditating for 15 minutes, even 5 minutes, is better than not meditating at all.
You’ll probably get distracted, and that’s OK. Everyone does. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, just encourage yourself to keep trying.
Remember, you can meditate anywhere
It might be easier to meditate at home, but you can practice meditation anywhere:
- Fatigued or tense at work? Take a 5-minute break for a quick body scan.
- Cranky on your commute home? Practice acceptance and compassion with a loving kindness meditation.
If you find it hard to get comfortable in a traditional meditative pose, such as seated with legs crossed, try lying down, standing up, or even meditating outdoors.
Avoid going into meditation with specific goals
You’re likely practicing meditation for a reason. You might want to reduce stress, get better at relaxation, or improve your sleep.
But if you go into it with specific goals, you might feel so focused on trying to achieve them that you have trouble focusing on the sensations in your body. If you start to feel like meditation isn’t working, you might end up more stressed than when you began.
It’s more helpful to start with one simple goal: learning more about what your body has to say.
Meditation continues to gain popularity as a beneficial wellness practice, and many experts recommend it as a helpful way of managing challenging emotions.
While body scan meditation involves little risk, mindfulness meditation can sometimes worsen depression or anxiety. If you notice dark, unwanted thoughts or emotions, check in with a therapist before continuing.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.