Imagine you've had a long and busy day – you’ve started a new project at work that requires learning new skills followed by a dinner with friends that was enjoyable despite the physical tiredness and aches you feel. You come home and you're just not feeling up to doing anything productive or fun, all you want to do is lie down.
Sometimes people can be so caught up in their day-to-day busy lives that they don’t recognize the regular physical discomfort they are feeling. But it doesn't have to be that way!
The Mental Body Scan, or Body Scan Meditation, is a mindfulness exercise practice that can help:
- Provide muscle relaxation and stress relief;
- Reconnect you with your body so you can better recognize what it needs; and
- Increase calmness and help you feel more refreshed and relaxed (Fischer, 2017; Gerritsen, 2018; Goyal, 2014; Rusch, 2019; Schultchen, 2019; Zanesco, 2018).
Learn to relax by scanning through your body and listening to how everything feels. (15 minutes) Repeat daily for a week.
This exercise is divided into three parts, based on three different parts of the body: the lower body, the upper body and the head.
- Choose a place that is quiet and where you will not be interrupted.
- Sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
- Close your eyes.
- Start by taking a few deep breaths.
Step 1: Become Aware of Your Lower Body
Spend about 5 minutes on the first step. As you sit in the chair, start to feel on the ground. Be aware of the contact that they make with the floor beneath you. Notice how your feet feel. Start with the toes, then bring your attention to the soles of your feet, up through to the ankles. Are your feet tired? Do your soles hurt from a busy day? Or are they perhaps rested and they feel just fine? At this point you might get distracted with different thoughts or emotions. Gently accept that your mind may be wandering and shift your focus back to your feet, in places where you may feel tension. Breathe in, and as you exhale slowly release part of the tension.
Next, bring your awareness above your feet, to the lower parts of your legs. Become aware of any sensations that you might experience there. Does this part feel energized? Or does it feel heavy? Slowly move your attention to your knees. Feel how the back of the knee touches the chair that you sit on. How do your knees feel? Keep on moving your focus upwards and feel your thighs. How do they feel? Do you feel like you need to present them with a well-deserved work out session? Feel the sensation of your thighs touching the surface of the chair. If your mind starts wandering around, gently bring your attention back to doing the exercise. Move your attention to your pelvic area and buttocks. Become aware of how your body makes contact with the chair.
Step 2: Become Aware of Your Upper Body
Spend 5 more minutes on this step. Start with your torso. Feel your stomach. How does it feel? Is it calm or is it nervous? Maybe you will realize that you feel slightly hungry. Notice any sensation that might be there, no matter how small. Then, move your attention to the lower back. Feel how it touches the back of the chair. The lower back is one of the body parts that may accumulate more tension and tiredness. How does your lower back feel? Does it hurt? Is it relaxed? If you feel any tension or negative sensation just breathe in and breathe out. Accept whatever sensations your lower back might be experiencing at the moment and keep doing the exercise. If your mind starts to get distracted, gently shift your focus back to your body.
Continue upwards, scanning the front and the back of your torso. Feel how the upper back makes contact with the surface of the chair. Feel how your whole back supports your body on the chair. What sensations can you feel? If you start thinking about other things, just be aware of it and softly bring your attention back to the body. Now, bring the awareness to your hands. Start with the fingertips, through the fingers, through to the palm of your hands. Be aware of any sensations that you may feel. Are your hands resting in your lap or on the chair? Feel the contact between your hands and forearms and your lap or the chair. Move your attention up towards your forearms, through your elbows and the upper part of your arms.
Step 3: Become Aware of Your Shoulders and Head
Spend 5 minutes on this step. The shoulders and the neck are parts of the body that often hold a lot of tension caused by stress. Bring your attention to the shoulders and the muscles of the neck. Be aware of how that region feels. Do you have tension in the muscles? Do you have neck pain because you were sitting in a chair throughout the whole day in your office or at school? Move your attention up to your head. Be aware of your chin, your mouth, your nose, your eyes and then your ears. Do you have any physical sensations or any type of tension? Be aware of how your head feels. Do you perhaps have a headache? Or does it feel relaxed and energized? Don't worry if your mind starts wandering, just gently redirect your focus back to the exercise.
Step 4: Write Down Your Experiences on the Printable
Use the outline of the human body to write down where in the body you had the most notable physical sensations, and what parts were the most tense or the most relaxed. This step provides better insight into how the exercise went. Maybe you will discover that some part of your body is tense that you haven't realized before. When you do this exercise every day for a week, you may realize that you repeatedly have tension in a certain part of the body.
|Area of Focus
|Feet (toes, soles), ankles, legs, knees, thigh, pelvic area
|Stomach, lower back, chest, upper back, hands, elbows, arms
|Shoulders, neck, face (chin, mouth, nose, eyes, ears), head
Use the DBT Mental Body Scan to help you keep track of what you need to do, and to journal what you feel as you do the exercise.
The exercise seems too difficult for me. I can't do it.
That is okay! At first, it might seem like the exercise is too difficult to do, especially if it is the first time that you ever do a mental body scan. Do as much as you can. If you can't succeed doing the whole body, do what you can. Next time you do the exercise try to get farther along. It may take you a few tries to get through the entire exercise.
I can't concentrate on my body, because I start thinking a lot. What should I do?
This is a normal reaction. It is normal for the mind to wander and for you to get distracted by thoughts or other stimuli. Non-judgmentally accept the thoughts or other stimuli and direct your focus back to the exercise.
During the exercise I became aware that my shoulders are actually tense, but that didn't help me to completely relax them.
This exercise helps you become more aware of every single part of your body, noticing any aches, pains, or tension. Although this exercise will help you relax some tense body parts, the goal of this exercise is not to relieve pain. The goal of this exercise is to better get to know and identify tension or general discomfort in your body so that you can better manage it!
If you have any behavioral health questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare or mental healthcare provider. This article is supported by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from behavioral health societies and governmental agencies. However, it is not a substitute for professional behavioral health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
- Fischer, D., Messner, M., & Pollatos, O. (2017). Improvement of interoceptive processes after an 8-week body scan intervention. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00452.
- Gerritsen, R. J., & Band, G. P. (2018). Breath of life: the respiratory vagal stimulation model of contemplative activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00397.
- Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., et al. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174 (3), 357-368. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018.
- Rusch, H. L., Rosario, M., Levison, L. M., Olivera, A., Livingston, W. S., Wu, T., & Gill, J. M. (2019). The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1445 (1), 5–16. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13996.
- Schultchen, D., Messner, M., Karabatsiakis, A., Schillings, C., & Pollatos, O. (2019). Effects of an 8-week body scan intervention on individually perceived psychological stress and related steroid hormones in hair. Mindfulness, 10 (12), 2532-2543. doi: 10.1007/s12671-019-01222-7.
- Zanesco, A. P., King, B. G., MacLean, K. A., & Saron, C. D. (2018). Cognitive aging and long-term maintenance of attentional improvements following meditation training. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2( 3), 259-275. doi: 10.1007/s41465-018-0068-1.