Human body setting in lotus position rendered as a silhouette with blue nerves running throughout

Body Scan

HERE, THEN, is a reason to hone our interoceptive sense: people who are more aware of their bodily sensations are better able to make use of their non-conscious knowledge. Mindfulness meditation is one way of enhancing such awareness. The practice has been found to increase sensitivity to internal signals, and even to alter the size and activity of that key brain structure, the insula. One particular component appears to be especially effective; this is the activity that often starts off a meditation session, known as the “body scan.” Rooted in the Buddhist traditions of Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, the body scan was introduced to Western audiences by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “People find the body scan beneficial because it reconnects their conscious mind to the feeling states of their body,” says Kabat-Zinn. “By practicing regularly, people usually feel more in touch with sensations in parts of their body they had never felt or thought much about before.”

To practice the body scan, he explains, we should first sit or lie down in a comfortable place, allowing our eyes to close gently. He recommends taking a few moments to feel the body as a whole and to sense the rising and falling of the abdomen with each in-breath and out-breath. We then begin a “sweep” of the body, starting with the toes of the left foot. Advises Kabat-Zinn, “As you direct your attention to your toes, see if you can channel your breathing to them as well, so that it feels as if you are breathing in to your toes and out from your toes.” After focusing on the toes for a few breaths, we shift our attention to the sole of our foot, the heel, the ankle, and so on up to the left hip. The same procedure is repeated for the right leg, focusing on each section for the length of a few breaths. The roving spotlight of our attention now travels up through the torso, the abdomen and chest, the back and shoulders, then down each arm to the elbows, wrists, and hands. Finally, the attentional spotlight moves up through the neck and face. If our attention should wander during the exercise, we can gently guide it back to the part of the body that is the object of focus. Kabat-Zinn recommends doing the body scan at least once a day.

The aim of this practice is to bring nonjudgmental awareness to any and all feelings that arise within the body. In the rush of everyday life, we may ignore or dismiss these internal signals; if they do come to our notice, we may react with impatience or self-criticism. The body scan trains us to observe such sensations with interest and equanimity. But tuning in to these feelings is only a first step. The next step is to name them. Attaching a label to our interoceptive sensations allows us to begin to regulate them; without such attentive self-regulation, we may find our feelings overwhelming, or we may misinterpret their source. Research shows that the simple act of giving a name to what we’re feeling has a profound effect on the nervous system, immediately dialing down the body’s stress response.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul

Several Stimpunks use body scans as part of their coping toolkit. Connecting with your interoceptive sense can be helpful. However, mindfulness techniques like body scans are not for everyone. They can aggravate trauma and chronic pain.

CBT: You’re wrong for being upset about your oppression and neglected pain. You’re overreacting. Stop it.

Mindfulness: You can’t control the future. Be in the present. Oh, you’re in pain 24/7 INCLUDING the present? Uh…take a deep breath?

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Placed beside one another, mindfulness and trauma can seem like natural, even inevitable, allies. Both are concerned with the nature of suffering. Both are grounded in sensory experience. And while trauma creates stress, mindfulness has been shown to reduce it. Theoretically, it seems that anyone who has experienced trauma could benefit from practicing mindfulness meditation. What could go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out. For people who’ve experienced trauma, mindfulness meditation can exacerbate symptoms of traumatic stress. This can include flashbacks, heightened emotional arousal, and dissociation—meaning a disconnect between one’s thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations. While meditation might appear to be a safe and innocuous practice, it can thrust trauma survivors* directly into the heart of wounds that require more than mindful awareness to heal. By raking their attention over injuries that are often internal and unseen, trauma survivors can end up much like Nicholas was when I met him: disoriented, distressed, and humiliated for somehow making things worse. At the same time, mindfulness can also be an invaluable resource for trauma survivors. Research has shown that it can strengthen body awareness, boost attention, and increase our ability to regulate emotions—all vital skills in trauma recovery. Mindfulness can also support well-established trauma-treatment methods, helping people find stability when faced with traumatic symptoms.

Mindfulness doesn’t cause trauma—it’s the practice of mindfulness meditation, offered without an understanding of trauma, that can exacerbate and entrench traumatic symptoms.

Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing

Further reading,