By Sean Eads
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring 2002.
That pain in your jawbone. The ache in your back. Or is it a persistent twinge between your shoulders? Do you pay attention to what your body is telling you? Or do you turn a deaf ear?
“Our bodies often tell us about stress before we consciously perceive it,” notes Dr. Matthew McKay, who with Drs. Martha Davis and Elizabeth R. Eshelman co-authored The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. “Without an awareness of how the body responds to external stimulation, we’re like ships without sonar. We’re trying to guide our lives without having half of the data necessary to make an informed decision.”
According to McKay, while everyone responds differently to adversity, there are certain generalities we can make when it comes to the body and stress. Anxiety, for example, is usually expressed in the shoulders and abdomen; anger, in the jaw, forehead and upper chest; sadness, as a heaviness in the legs.
“It is not unusual that the physical location of pain or discomfort provides vital clues to what kind of stress you’re being exposed to long before you’re actually aware of it,” Davis adds. “Body awareness is a way to deal with stress — before it overwhelms you — by becoming a more conscious being. Often we’re busy with appointments and schedules. It’s important to ‘check in’ with ourselves during the day, to remind ourselves why we’re here.”
Several simple exercises can help refine your ability to listen to your body:
• Learning Awareness – Learn the differences between your body and your environment by making deliberate shifts from inner to outer awareness. McKay describes this kind of shifting as a “muscle” that needs to be developed and flexed. Begin by getting comfortable, shutting your eyes and taking stock of your surroundings. How much sensory stimulation have you learned to overlook? Announce out loud everything you can hear or smell or touch. Then shift into your body, following the same pattern. Does your foot itch? Acknowledge it. With this new perception, you will likely find your body is alive with positive and negative sensations. Shuttling back and forth between your internal and external worlds will help you appreciate your individuality and the forces that influence it.
• Body Scanning – “There are several ways to perform body scanning,” says McKay. “A typical way is to imagine a band of light moving down your body from head to toe. As it does, imagine it ‘scanning’ you and stopping when it detects areas of pain or discomfort. Once a tension is discovered, ask yourself why is it there? What caused it? What is my body telling me that I haven’t consciously realized?”
• Letting Go – Once pain is detected, let go of it. “Breathe it away,” suggests Davis. “Lie down in a comfortable place and continue focusing on your body. When you find areas of pain, exaggerate it a little so you can more clearly feel it. Then take a few deep breaths and exhale the discomfort from your body.”