When our brain perceives our circumstances as stressful, our body often reacts by becoming tense. Body awareness helps us recognize these physical sensations that indicate we are experiencing stress. Once we recognize and acknowledge these physical experiences, we can practice stress reduction exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scanning or other basic mindfulness skills to help reduce our stress throughout the day.
A 2016 study in the journal of Biological Psychology supports the role of body awareness for reducing stress. Researchers had participants engage in a stress inducing task and found that individuals with lower self-reported interoceptive awareness or reduced attention to bodily signals of stress displayed higher stress-related brain activation. In other words, the brain appears to register lower levels of stress when we are aware of the stress experienced in our body, thereby reducing our overall stress response.
Improving your body awareness starts by recognizing when you feel stressed. General indications of stress include fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, upset stomach and sleep problems. You can also notice when your behavior changes as a reflection of stress if you find yourself struggling with angry outbursts, overeating, drinking excessively, withdrawing or skipping your typical self-care. In the moment, it is helpful to practice noticing if you feel anxious, restless, or irritable and when you find yourself thinking anxious or worrisome thoughts.
A few ways to practice body awareness:
Deep breathing – Breathing techniques can be one of the most practical and easily accessible ways of reducing stress in the moment as they can be used at almost any point throughout the day. Practice taking a slow deep breath from your abdomen and silently count up to five. Next, hold your breath for a moment and again count silently count up to five. Finally, exhale slowly as you again silently count up to five. It can also be helpful to imagine yourself inhaling a sense of fresh energy and exhaling stress.
Basic Mindfulness – Similar to breathing techniques, mindfulness can be used in virtually any circumstance. One practical way of applying mindfulness is to incorporate mindful moments throughout your day, such as pausing for a minute each time you sit down at your computer. This practice is especially helpful if you find more structure helpful. You can also pause at any point and practice bringing your attention to the present by noticing the sights and sounds in your environment. Likewise, you can practice mindfulness by selecting an object and focusing your attention on this object for a minute or so as you ground yourself in the present. All of these strategies can help you stay connected to your body by increasing present moment awareness.
Body Scan – Body scan techniques apply mindfulness specifically to our awareness of our body and allow us to connect with areas of stress and release tension. This is likely the most effective way to practice and improve body awareness. You may practice sitting comfortably or laying down. Begin by noticing the pressure of your feet against the floor or bed, the temperature, comfort or discomfort, itches, or anything else. Expect your mind to wander, and when it does, return your attention to your feet. Let your attention rest with your feet for a minute or two before moving on and repeating this process with your legs and the rest of your body, all the way up to your head. Notice any physical sensations and practice breathing into areas of tension as you release stress by breathing and relaxing your muscles.
Although all of these strategies are beneficial, simply becoming more aware of the stress we carry in our body is significant step in reducing our overall stress and the impact of stress on our well-being.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
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