Tool #6: Body Scan

When you are feeling stressed, it is common for the body to carry this feeling in your physical form. For instance, stress can lead to tight shoulders, tension headaches, back pain, increased strain on your cardiovascular system/high blood pressure. This can be subtle and you may not even notice it, or you may notice obvious physical discomfort. Often, we don’t connect our physical discomfort with our emotions, but we know from medical research on meditation in the realm of chronic pain that the two are intimately related.

The evidence is so strong on the connection between mind and body in terms of pain, that the national guidelines for treatment of pain now recommend meditation as the first intervention for pain relief, even before medications. In a later edition of this blog, I plan to discuss with you some of the clinical trials on meditation for pain and proposed mechanisms of action.

Today, I’d like to provide you with this tool, the body scan. You can do this once per day, or several times per day. This will help you to identify where in the body you are carrying tension, and facilitate releasing the tension to reduce pain and psychological stress.

  1. Get into a comfortable position. You can do this seated or lying down. Make a true effort to get comfortable.
  2. Start by taking deep breaths, focusing on the diaphragmatic type breathing described in my previous blog. You want to feel the air being drawn in with the belly, feeling the rise and fall of the breath in the abdomen, less so in the chest and shoulders. This may feel as though a balloon is inflating and deflating in your abdomen with each breath.
  3. Begin at your head and slowly scan down through the body. Notice the forehead. Is there tension there? Are you clenching your jaw? Is the tongue relaxed within your mouth? Are you holding tension in the neck? Continue to bring your awareness to different parts of the body moving down towards your feet. Notice how each area feels. Where are you holding your stress?
  4. When you find an area that is tense, take in a deep cleansing breath, and while doing so, tense up that muscle/region. Upon exhale, release the breath and along with it, all of the tension you are holding there.
  5. Many people initially notice an increase in the intensity of tension/discomfort when they first focus on it, but stay present with it, breathing into the tension, relaxing, releasing and not resisting and the intensity will lessen.

Tool #5: 5-4-3-2-1 Technique

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can induce a variety of negative emotions: fear, anxiety, stress, anticipation, but…

Did you know that the physical chemistry in your body that leads you to experience an emotion lasts only 90 seconds?

I first learned of this concept of the 90-second emotion from Pema Chödrön, who explained that if you allow an emotion to exist in your body for 90 seconds without judging or resisting it, it will disappear.

Here are 2 techniques you can try when experiencing a negative emotion, that will help you to take advantage of this 90-second concept.

Dr. Ali Novitsky of Mind, Body, Marriage taught me this amazing technique and I want to pass it on to you, as it is truly a wonderful tool to ground you in the present moment.  It’s easy and portable! When you start to feel a negative emotion come on, simply notice the following:

5 things you see right now

4 things you can touch

3 things you hear

2 things you smell

1 thing you taste

These 5 steps are an easy way to bring you back to the moment and get you out of your head where you may have been overwhelmed with negative thoughts. Simply noticing your surroundings in detail, and redirecting your mind to right now will help to dissipate overwhelming negative thoughts and feelings.

Here is another idea for times when you have the ability to go somewhere alone. When you feel a negative emotion coming on, such as anxiety:

  1. Go somewhere alone and close your eyes.
  2. Relax your body one part at a time, starting with your forehead and moving down all the way to the toes. This can be quick, but just make an attempt to physically relax your body.
  3. Take 3 deep breaths.
  4. Say to yourself, “I notice I am feeling anxious.”
  5. Move toward the feeling mentally. It’s your friend. Get to know it. Don’t resist it.
  6. Develop a sense of curiosity, intrigue and fascination about the anxiety.
  7. Where do you feel it in your body? How does it feel? (It may help to write this down.)
  8. Mentally bring your awareness to that area of your body and describe the color, texture, shape, frequency, vibrations, constance or changing of the physical feeling of the emotion in the body.
  9. The goal is to get to know the emotion, taking the wind out of its sails.
  10. Then get up and move on with your day.

In my cell phone, I created a bulleted list using the reminders app called “Feeling an Emotion.” When I feel a negative emotion overtaking me, I pull up this list and methodically work through these steps. I suggest you give it a try! Once you get versed in feeling emotions in your body, you are more easily able to recognize them coming on and you begin to realize that there are no emotions that you can’t withstand, as they are all just sensations in the body of typically short duration.

Tool #4: Mindful Presence

What do I mean by mindful presence?

This is a skill that can be cultivated, which may be likened to living in the Now.

Often, our minds are wandering. Although we are here now, doing a task, many times we are thinking about what’s next on our list or re-hashing a mistake from yesterday.  One of my favorite authors, Eckhart Tolle, gives an excellent description of mindful presence in his books The Power of Now and A New Earth. In these, we learn that our purpose is to allow conscious presence to flow through everything we do. This is what Eckhart calls “our inner purpose.” Being present in this moment is our inner purpose. Of course, our life seems to demand of us that we carry out tasks: we may have a job to do, treatment for cancer to pursue, obligations to family, church and friends. The goal of living with a mindful presence is to be able to align these “outer purposes” with our inner purpose of being present.

When we are able to be fully present in what we do, everything becomes more vibrant and alive.

Most people have had the experience of seeing a person’s body after death. It can be quite shocking.  What remains is a shell, but it becomes clear that the Being/Person/Soul/Spirit that once made this shell alive is no longer there, the animating presence has gone. Here is an exercise to try which may help you to sense your own conscious presence. Read through this exercise and then give it a try.

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Hold your arms and hands out in front of you.
  3. Without looking at your hands, can you sense where they are in space?
  4. Notice the sensation of a living, animating presence just under your skin. What does this feel like to you? Notice the energy field inside the body, feeling the body from within.

Tuning in to your conscious presence and therefore being more mindful may help you with a variety of concerns, including anxiety, fear, anticipation, and other negative emotions that are based in the future or past.  One way to cultivate a mindful presence is to practice regular mindfulness meditation. Your mind will actually build the skill of being in the moment. In the future, we will talk in more detail about neuroplasticity (physical changes in the brain that have been shown to result from mindfulness meditation.) For now, suffice it to say that studies have shown that meditation can physically grow and rewire parts of your brain to make a mindful presence easier. A second way to cultivate mindful presence is remembering to observe moments with your 5 senses. What are you seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling and tasting in this moment?

A sense of mindful presence can be brought to anything you do. You will find that you are much more often in a state of peaceful calm when you make an effort to align your inner and outer purposes. Make it a goal this week to practice being present in what you are doing, even during mundane tasks like washing dishes. Let me know how this goes!

Tool #3: Regular Mindfulness Meditation Practice

Starting a Mindfulness Practice

Let’s make this easy. You don’t have to allow your brain to complicate things.  You don’t have to make it challenging. You just start! Remember, no one is “good” at meditating. You are either practicing meditation, or you are not, and you most certainly won’t begin to experience the benefits of a regular practice if you aren’t doing it.

Remember, the main tenets of mindfulness are:

  • Attention on the present moment
  • Nonjudgement
  • Openness and acceptance of the moment’s experience

As long as you are striving towards these ideals, you are succeeding! Here are the practical steps that I recommend to get started.

  1. Chose a time of day to meditate that you want to test. Make this the same time of day every day for 3 weeks. Then, if this is not working for you, you can re-assess and try other times. Set an alarm on your phone to remind you. (I choose to set my alarm earlier in the morning to get up and meditate before my family is awake…then there is peace, quiet and no distractions!)
  2. Start small. I began with just 10 minutes per day. If you’d like, you can try my 10-day series here, which are about 10 minutes each. Another excellent resource: the app called Headspace which has a free trial and is great for beginners.
  3. At first, you will just want to focus on making it a regular habit. The “quality” doesn’t matter as much. Just practice!

I have found that this is the thought model that many people operate under when delaying a start to their meditation practice:

Circumstance: meditation

Thoughts: I don’t have time for this. I don’t know how to do this. I am not good at this. My brain won’t be quiet.

Feeling: paralyzed

Action: Make no attempts to practice meditation. (inaction)

Result: The benefits of a regular practice are not available to you.

Together, let’s try this alternative model!

Circumstance: meditation

Thought: Doing something calming for myself is something I deserve. (Alternatives: I will never learn if I don’t try. I want to be a person who is open to growth and change.)

Feeling: optimistic, motivated

Action: Start today, being open to where the experience will take you.

Result: Personal growth and realization of all the amazing benefits mindfulness meditation will offer you.

What works for beginning a meditation practice is not so much the quantity of time you are committing or your perceived quality or skill level, it is about trying it out on a regular basis and determining whether your practice is fulfilling for you. Is it enough to make a difference in your life? What needs to be adjusted?

How long will it take to see a difference? Research on the health benefits of meditation shows that practicing for at least one hour per week for 8 weeks may be enough to show significant positive effects on your mental and physical health. In fact, one study by Dr. Deborah Norris at a children’s hospital showed that even just 5 minutes of guided meditation before procedures resulted in profound physiological and behavioral effects.

Making a regular practice a priority is something you will not regret.

Please comment below if you need further help or advice!