By Martha David, Ph.D., Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, M.S.W., and Matthew McKay, Ph.D.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, April/May 2001.
The ability to recognize how your body reacts to stressors in your life can be a powerful skill. However, most people are more aware of the weather, the time of day, or their bank balance than they are of their own personal stress response. Your body registers stress long before the conscious mind does. Muscle tension is your body’s way of letting you know you are under stress, and body awareness is the first step toward acknowledging and reducing stress. Try the following exercises to promote body awareness:
Internal vs. External Awareness
1. First focus your attention on the outside world. Start sentences with “I am aware of...” (For example, “I am aware of the cars going by outside the window, papers moving and the coffee perking.”)
2. After you have become aware of everything going on around you, shift your focus to your body and your physical sensations – your internal world. (For example, “I am aware of feeling warm, my stomach gurgling, tension in my neck and nose tickling.”)
3. Shuttle back and forth between internal and external awareness. (For example, “I am aware of the chair pushing into my buttocks, the circle of yellow light from the lamp, my shoulder hunching up, the smell of bacon.”) Used at free moments through the day, this exercise allows you to separate and appreciate the real difference between your inner and outer worlds.
Body Scanning for Stress
Close your eyes. Starting with your toes and moving up your body, ask yourself, “Where am I tense?” Whenever you discover a tense area, exaggerate it slightly so you can become aware of it. Then, say to yourself, “I am tensing my neck muscles...I am hurting myself...I am creating tension in my body.” Note that all muscular tension is self-produced. At this point, be aware of any life situation that may be causing the tension in your body and what you could do to change it.
Letting Go of Your Body
Lie down on a rug or a firm bed and get comfortable. Pull your feet toward you until they rest flat on the floor and close your eyes. Check yourself for comfort. (This may require shifting your body around.) Become aware of your breathing...Feel the air move into your nose, mouth and down your throat into your lungs. Focus on your body and let all of the parts come into your awareness spontaneously.
What parts of your body come into awareness first? What parts are you less aware of? Become aware of which components of your body you can feel easily and which ones have little sensation. Do you notice any difference between the right and left side of your body? Now become aware of any physical discomfort you are feeling. Become aware of this discomfort until you can describe it in detail.
Focus and be aware of what happens to this discomfort. It may change. Scan your body for any residual tension or discomfort and let it go with each exhalation. Continue letting go for five to 10 minutes, allowing your body to take over.