Written by therapist Megan Hanafee-Major
We can feel really disconnected from our bodies. Anxiety, trauma, and dissociation can cause us to feel like we are outside of ourselves looking in. Disordered eating and body image issues can change our perception of how we look and take up space. While being preoccupied or obsessed with our bodies can be unhealthy, caring for our bodies and being in tune with how our bodies feel is a part of a healthy relationship with ourselves.
What is Body Awareness?
Body awareness is not only understanding how each part of ourselves feels internally, but how we exist in the world around us. Parts of body awareness include proprioception (our internal sense of movement and where we are), vestibular system (our sense of balance and spatial awareness), and sensory cues like hunger and tiredness. Body awareness is less about how you look externally and more about your connection to the internal processes of your body.
Why do Body Awareness Exercises?
Just like physical exercise strengthens muscles, mental and emotional exercises flex and strengthen our understanding and connection to our bodies. Depending on your goals, body awareness exercises can accomplish different things. Some people want to be more in tune with their somatic symptoms of mental health concerns, and others want to better understand hunger cues or appreciate their bodies more.
During a body scan, you focus your attention on different parts of your body, scanning it as the name suggests. There are many different ways that you can use body scans and different ways you can focus on each body part. You can sit or lay down, start at your feet or your head, be in silence or use music. I like to sit and start at my feet. I imagine a warm ball of light flowing upward, slowly spreading from my toes to my forehead.
Whatever way you choose to complete a body scan, take your time. Body scans are at their core a mindfulness practice. The goal is to keep your attention on your body without judging your thoughts or feelings. Like any mindfulness practice, if you find your mind wandering, gently and kindly redirect your attention back to the task at hand. As you focus on each part of your body, notice any sensory input, like if you feel clothing or itchiness. Keep your breathing even, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Similar to the body scan, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) focuses your attention on one part of your body at a time. You start PMR in the same way as a body scan, by sitting or laying in a relaxed position and slowing your breathing. Isolate your attention on each part of your body starting at your feet and working your way up. In addition to noting sensory feelings like in the body scan, intentionally tense the muscles in each body part as you focus on it. Then, when you release the muscle, breathe out and let it relax fully. Tightening the muscle before you relax allows it to relax more fully. You may notice areas of your body carrying muscle tension that you didn’t realize before. Since doing this exercise on each part of your body helps your body awareness as well as calming your mind and body, it is a great practice to do when stressed, anxious, or to aid in falling asleep.
Moving side to side, crossing the body, or engaging each side of the body alternately are all considered bilateral simulations. Deconstructing the term, we can see that, “bi,” meaning two and, “lateral,” meaning side, makes perfect sense to describe each of these examples. Bilateral movement in any form is comforting for the mind and body. Think about how we naturally rock a baby to sleep by gently swaying back and forth. We are designed to respond calmly to bilateral stimulation. These exercises can aid in body awareness by lowering stress and bringing attention to how movement impacts our moods. Some simple and effective bilateral exercises include disco dance moves, windmill stretches, and twisting your waist to move your torso side to side. Now that you have a name for this type of movement, you may also notice how these naturally come up throughout your day: alternately tapping your hands to music, swaying side to side while thinking, shifting your weight from one foot to the other as you prepare a meal at the stove. Some parents and teachers may discourage or dismiss this type of “fidgeting,” but when increasing body awareness, lean in (no pun intended)!
I have yet to find someone who does not feel comforted by a gentle embrace or caring touch. Touch can be vulnerable, though. We have to open ourselves up to another in order to feel safe connecting with them, however well-intentioned. The advantages of comforting touch do not have to rely on another person’s participation. Although it may seem strange, we can “hold” ourselves and reap the same benefits. While breathing steadily and slowly, wrap your arms around yourself, as if giving yourself a hug. You can also place your palm on the opposite cheek, crossing your forearms over your chest as you do so. The warm contact, even coming from yourself, assists you in calming your thoughts and brings awareness to how your body can be used as a tool to self-soothe. Of course, if you have a trusted friend or partner who willingly offers an embrace, take them up on the comfort of a hug!
Our bodies are amazing, even if we have complicated relationships with them. Bringing our attention to the movement, sensations, and calming abilities of our bodies can not only help our thoughts but can improve our attitudes toward our physical self.
If you notice the benefits of body awareness in your life or just wonder how you can use body awareness to support your mental health goals, reach out to us here at Optimum Joy! Our therapists would be thrilled to talk with you about it and even join you in body awareness exercises.