Looking for a free and easy way to get grounded in your body? Could a body scan meditation help you find more ease and calm?
One of my most common defense mechanisms is that I cut my head off from the rest of my body.
In other words, I am prone to getting really focused on the tasks in my brain at the expense of noticing what’s going on in my body. Can you relate?
Out of all the different meditation practices, body scans have become my favorite by far for almost a decade.
In fact, I used a 30-minute body scan on repeat to help me stay relaxed during an unmedicated birth. It was a saving grace to help me get through the intense sensations for the last 8 hours of the birth. (I wish I had saved the YouTube link because I honestly don’t know which one it was!)
But before that, I started experimenting with different mindfulness meditations because my functional medicine doctor wondered if some of my autoimmunity was being caused by unresolved stress and trauma (including the medical trauma you can read about in this post).
To be honest, I have not done body scan meditations every day for an extended period of time.
But it is one of the first tools I pull out of my tool belt when I’m struggling or feeling stretched thin.
For almost a decade, I’ve reaped the benefits of body scan meditations.
What Is a Body Scan Meditation?
A body scan meditation is a stress mastery practice where you pay attention to parts of your body from the top of your head to your toes, or vice versa.
Body scan meditations can range anywhere from 3 minutes to 30 minutes.
This mindfulness-based stress reduction tool has become one of my go-tos because of how easy and effective it is.
Some body scans will have you inhale while focusing on a particular body part and encourage you to exhale the stress that you are holding there. Others simply ask you to notice what’s going on in that part of your body without judgment.
A body scan is different from progressive muscle relaxation though.
Body Scan vs Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is similar because you go from either your head to toe or vice versa. But the difference is that progressive muscle relaxation will have you squeeze or flex the muscles in each area, and then release the tension or relax that muscle group.
I actually had a high school sports coach that had us do progressive muscle relaxation after our cross-country meets to help us wind down.
While I did enjoy them, now that I have chronic pain that is similar to rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, progressive muscle relaxation can sometimes cause me to go into a flare. Because of the discomfort that progressive muscle relaxation causes me, I prefer to do body scans where I pay attention to and notice the sensations in my body.
Sometimes, doing a body scan helps me be aware of the tightness in my body and I can relax it without having to tighten or flex the muscle beforehand.
Benefits of Body Scan Meditations
One systematic review and meta-analysis reported that there isn’t enough data to determine any health-related outcomes for body scan meditations yet.
Simply trying body scans isn’t going to reverse an autoimmune disease. Nevertheless, using free and easy stress management techniques may still be an important part of the puzzle for you to destress.
For me, the biggest benefit is that it’s easy to do… so I actually implement it.
Where to Find Body Scans
It may take you a few tries to find the body scans that fit you and your preferences the best.
You may prefer ones that start with your feet. Or you may prefer ones that have some gentle music in the background.
I usually prefer starting with my head, but I go back and forth on whether I want background sounds or silence.
Overall, I prefer the novelty of doing different body scans so that I don’t get caught in a rut.
There are many free ones on YouTube for you to try:
If you’re already paying for any type of specialty meditation app, just search for “body scan.”
If you have an audible account on Amazon, you may like this one.
One of my favorites is a 30-minute free body scan through my local library app called Hoopla.
Just be careful if you’re doing a body scan on an app you usually have that you’re doing it at the right speed. The first time, I did the one above on my free audiobook app and I thought it was amazing. Then afterward, I realized I had done it at 1.5 speed.
Now that I know what I like, sometimes I’ll walk myself through a body scan instead of listening to one.
It’s really up to you to choose what you prefer.
When to Do Body Scans
It’s really a matter of personal preference. The position you do a body scan in is up to you. I’ve done them sitting outside while getting my morning sunlight or with my legs up the wall.
Some will recommend that you lay down or at least have something to lean on if you’re sitting up.
These are the main times when I like to do them:
First, I like to do them when I’m inside my sauna. I have a sauna blanket right now so I typically lay down and pick one for the length of time I want to be in the sauna.
RELATED: Katie’s Sauna Review
Second, I’ll do one if I wake up in the middle of the night. I tend to get insomnia when I’m having a bad mast cell or autoimmune flare, and that’s usually accompanied by a racing mind. Doing a body scan at this time, helps me get out of my mind and relax back into my body. I like to keep a pair of headphones by my bed so I don’t disturb my husband by getting up.
Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Body Scans
Here are the ways to get the most out of your body scans. Learn from my experience so you don’t make the same mistakes.
Meet Your Physical Needs
It may sound obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to do a body scan only to have my bladder start screaming at me.
I highly recommend using the restroom before you start and taking a sip of water. Focusing your awareness on your body usually makes these needs very well known. So you want to address them beforehand.
Set Boundaries with Your Family
When you want to practice a body scan, I encourage you to let your family know that you shouldn’t be interrupted for the next 5, 10, or 20 minutes. With little kids, you can set a visual timer for them and/or set them up with a (non-messy) activity.
With kids, I’ve set the boundary that they are welcome to do it on the floor next to me if they are silent. And if they want to get up they are welcome to get up quietly without saying a word.
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Navigating Uncomfortable Feelings
Occasionally, when I do body scans, I will have flashbacks to painful memories or piercing anxiety. I’ve learned that this might be because I’ve been holding the tension from these situations in this spot.
Some of the common ones are when I’ve been medically gaslit (learn more about what that is here!)
Preliminary studies have used body scan meditations as a way to navigate distressing emotions among other tools like brain spotting or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
I’ve learned to have compassion for myself when tough memories pop up. The most helpful script I have found is to say to myself,
“Of course, this memory is coming up in your lower back because it made you feel unstable.” Or
“Of course, that embarrassing moment you didn’t know how to navigate is in your shoulders.”
Simply acknowledging this emotional state has been helpful for me. And if it still bugs me when I’m done, I’ll make a note in my journal to revisit it later by myself or with a therapist.
This has been pretty rare for me though.
Will You Try a Body Scan Meditation?
Maybe you’ll start with one of my quick favorites here:
More on Managing Your Stress Well
- Managing Stress with Chronic Illness
- How to Stop Stress Eating
- Strategies to Help Kids Cope With Anxiety
- 1 Easy Step to Take Your Stress Back
- Make Stress Your BFF
- D’Antoni, F., Matiz, A., Fabbro, F., & Crescentini, C. (2022). Psychotherapeutic Techniques for Distressing Memories: A Comparative Study between EMDR, Brainspotting, and Body Scan Meditation. International journal of environmental research and public health, 19(3), 1142. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031142
- Gan, R., Zhang, L., & Chen, S. (2022). The effects of body scan meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Applied psychology. Health and well-being, 14(3), 1062–1080. https://doi.org/10.1111/aphw.12366