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A Healing Practice: This Calming Technique Helps Manage Chronic Pain

Try a “body scan” to get to know your body and give yourself space to relax and release pain.

Body scan
Credit: Getty Images

If you suffer from chronic pain—particularly chronic back pain—you are far from alone. Since 2010, chronic pain has been considered to be a health condition in and of itself—and an estimated 100 million American adults experience chronic pain each year.

There are myriad approaches to coping with and reducing chronic pain. Among non-medical interventions, calming, mindful practices are supported by research, such as one study that showed an immediate benefit to those who practiced a “body scan” technique. The study reported reduced pain levels and distraction caused by pain after the practice.

A body scan is a mental exercise in which you move your attention over your entire body and notice sensations without trying to change or “fix” them. This is an easy technique that you can practice anywhere, without any special equipment, apps, or even a quiet space (though guided meditations and quiet, peaceful surroundings can certainly help you relax).

At first, a body scan might seem counterintuitive as a way to manage chronic pain—if you are focusing your attention on parts of your body that are in pain, won’t that exacerbate the feeling? Psychologists and other researchers suggest the opposite; building awareness of specific sensations in your body, even if they are uncomfortable, will help you keep your pain in perspective and, over time, learn to manage it.

A body scan is easy to do:

  • Find any comfortable position—lying down, sitting, or standing comfortably all work.
  • Take a few deep breaths, bringing your attention away from eternal stimulation and into your inner world.
  • Choose whether to start at the top of your head or the bottom of your feet. Direct your attention to either place in your body.
  • Notice any sensations in your body as you mentally scan yourself either from top down or bottom up. These can include temperature, muscle tension, achiness, alignment, or simply the feeling of one part of your body connecting with the adjacent parts.
  • When you encounter an uncomfortable place in your body, breathe deeply and focus on that area. Be curious—what happens when you calmly breathe into the tight spot?
  • Continue until you either reach the top of your head—mentally releasing any tension you feel upward—or the soles of your feet—grounding yourself in the earth.
  • Take a couple of final deep breaths before moving on with your day.

Have you tried a body scan? Has it helped you relax or cope with chronic pain?

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