Body scan: what is it and how is this relaxation technique performed

Body scan: what is it and how is this relaxation technique performed

Among the most used Mindfulness techniques, besides breathing, we have the body scan , a useful resource to become more aware of the sensations of our body without resorting to anything but our own mind.

Let’s see exactly what it is and how it is done to relax and be in the here and now

What is a body scan?

Body scanning, also called “body scanning” and body sweeping, is one of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques, as well as one of the most important along with controlled breathing.

It consists of taking full attention to the body’s sensations , going from part to part of the body and being aware of what they are feeling, intensifying it and understanding it. This practice has been incorporated into almost all stress reduction programs since, as a beneficial side effect, it induces relaxation.

With the kind of busy life we have, coupled with the little time we have to get to know ourselves, there are many times when we only feel a pain, a tingle or our own body posture towards the end of the day, when we are already in bed. The fact that we suddenly become more aware of our feelings at night is due to the fact that, either out of boredom or because we find it difficult to sleep, we pay more attention to our body.

The main objective of this technique is to know the state of our body , to know what sensations come from the different parts that compose it. The relaxation, emotions and thoughts that occur as a result of this process are secondary, but equally fundamental. Although it is not considered a purely relaxation technique, the way in which it is applied contributes to inducing generalised relaxation, both physical and mental.

How is it done?

As we have mentioned, one of the moments in which, in an involuntary way, we become more aware of our sensations, is when we are lying down . This can be a good starting point for beginners in this technique, starting with when they are in bed. Not only will we not have many distractions, but inducing relaxation will help us to sleep. However, it can be said that it can be done at any time of the day and that it does not necessarily serve to sleep.

As its name suggests, the technique consists of imagining that you are performing a kind of systematic scanning or sweeping of the body, like the machines used in airports with passengers. The difference with those machines is that it is not X-rays that we use to scan the body, but our mind, our consciousness, focusing attention on the different parts of the body , and becoming aware of what they are feeling and, therefore, what we ourselves should be feeling.

The scan can start anywhere on the body, but it is best to always go in one direction , either up and down or down and up. It is said that going up and down generates more relaxation and, as a consequence, can induce sleep. If you want to try to sleep this would be a very good direction. It may be the case that in our particular case, going from top to bottom, bottom to top, implies more relaxation. It is all about trying and seeing which direction is best for us.

Example of a body scan exercise to relax

As an example, let’s describe how this technique is performed in a bottom-up order:

First, we close our eyes and start to feel for the toes of the left foot , moving mentally all over the foot, paying attention to the sole, the heel and the forefoot. Then we will go up the left leg, feeling, in this order, the left ankle, shin and calf, followed by the knee and kneecap, the whole thigh, groin and hip. Then, we jump to the right toes, following the same process we have done with the right leg.

Once we have seen both legs, we will focus our attention on the pelvic area, including the hips, buttocks and our genitals. We move on to the lower back and abdomen, which will be our introduction to the rest of the torso, the upper back, the chest and the ribs. It is possible that, if we are very concentrated, we may notice our heartbeat , especially if we are a little nervous. We will also become aware of the rhythm of our breathing, feeling our lungs swell and deflate.

We will pay attention to the shoulder blades, the clavicles and the shoulders, the latter being the links between the torso and the arms. When evaluating the arms, we have a certain freedom, since we can dare to analyze both simultaneously or, if we prefer to spend more time on the session, go one by one.

In the arms we can start in a similar way as we have done with the legs, going to the fingers and thumbs. We move successively through the fingers, the palms, the wrists, the forearms, the elbows, the upper arms, the armpits and the shoulders again, which will serve as a bridge to go to the final part of the body scan, the head, passing through the neck and the throat.

What requirements are needed?

Any person, of any gender and any physical condition, can practice body scanning . However, a number of aspects need to be taken into account.

It is necessary to find a place where there are no distractions , such as our room. This place is ideal since it allows us to lie down while performing the technique, although it is true that we can perform it lying down or even standing, but it is not recommended for beginners. Also, the idea would be to have enough free time to carry out a session, which can last between 20 and 45 minutes.

Sometimes, it is not necessary to carry out the scan in its entirety , that is, to concentrate on all the sensations of all the parts of the body. The example given above is a full body scan, but it is not the only one and it is also not necessary to carry it out so extensively if you want to focus on only one part, especially if you are quite new to this technique or do not have much time. For example, we can focus only on the sensations of our arm or the rhythm of our breathing.

Also, although it is not recommended, you can do the body sweep when you are in a place where you have nothing to do, such as in the doctor’s waiting room, on the bus or on a bench in the street. The ideal is to have silence and time , but we can also test our capacity for full attention in the most varied places.

What sensations can body sweeping involve?

As we were saying, body scanning is a technique that makes us pay full attention to parts of our body. By being more concentrated, we have a lower sensitivity threshold than in a normal day , noticing things that, perhaps, in other situations, we would not even think of being able to perceive.

We will now look at these physical sensations, as well as the emotions that can be aroused and, of course, thoughts that are more or less related.

1. Physical sensations

In terms of physical sensations, we can feel all kinds. To name but a few: tingling, prickling, tension, softness, relaxation, numbness, heaviness, lightness, tremors, tightness, itching, burning, pain, throbbing, vibrations and sensations of cold and hot.

2. Emotional reactions

During the performance of the technique we can feel the whole emotional spectrum , both negative and positive emotions.

We can feel joy, surprise, impatience or the desire to stop, either because we are bored or because we do not feel comfortable or, otherwise, we can feel pleasure. We may also feel sadness or fear, grief, anger, frustration, even disgust…

3. Thoughts

Of course, during the performance of the technique it is impossible to leave the mind totally blank .

Perhaps there are people, with a lot of experience in the technique, who are able to leave their mind blank, concentrate only and exclusively on bodily sensations, but this, most mortals, we can hardly achieve.

During the technique all kinds of thoughts can come to mind and, like the emotions mentioned above, these can be positive or negative.

Since this is a time when we have peace of mind and time for ourselves, we can turn to looking back, seeing what has happened in our past, and being aware of our successes and failures.

We can also look to the future, think about how to plan it, what we want, where we want to go… of course, all kinds of thoughts can come to mind…

Some aspects to consider

During the body scan, you may experience discomfort , as important as the person may feel panic. Since you are not undergoing any kind of traumatic procedure, there is no reason to think that you are in danger. That is why it is advisable, in these situations, to try to concentrate on the breathing, on its rhythmic movement and, as far as possible, to slow down the rhythm of inspiration-expiration, until the person feels better.

If the symptoms of panic are not reduced, it is best to open our eyes, look at the room or place we are in and try to get our bearings in space , to become aware that we have not gone anywhere dangerous and that we are not in a situation where our lives are at risk.

We can try to look at something that relaxes us, such as a painting or a picture of a loved one. We can even try to talk to someone in case we are not home alone or, if we are, call (no instant messaging) someone. The sound of your voice and, above all, your tone, will induce us to feel better. But be careful not to call just anyone. It must be someone close to us and we must know that it tends to be comforting to talk to him or her.

Also, if what we need is air, we can take a walk and open the windows . If the soft and delicious aroma of an infusion relaxes us (before a tea), we can prepare a chamomile, a valerian or the herbal infusion we most desire, but preferably not resort to coffee or tea. We may like these types of drinks, but since they contain caffeine, a substance that can increase stress, they are not the most appropriate for the situation we are in.

Bibliographic references:

  • Dreeben, Samuel y Mamberg, Michelle y Salmon, Paul. (2013). El escáner corporal MBSR en la práctica clínica. Concienciación. 4. 394-401. 10.1007/s12671-013-0212-z.

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