This week I have realised I eat too fast, too much on the go - reading emails, and watching TV - and don't sit down and enjoy food unless it's a social thing. Because I don't always tune in to see what my body really wants, it's no wonder I eat too much chocolate!
This week, I went for afternoon tea with my sister, and we stuffed our faces with cake, then went for a walk to get the digestion going. It was a lovely, relaxed afternoon, and something I'm mindful I don't do enough of.
In mindfulness, we are taught to slow down, breath and appreciate the food in front of you. Savour the smell, touch, taste and sensations that arise when food is present and enjoyed. Eating mindfully allows us to tune in to the pleasurable feelings of taste, chewing, swallowing and nourishing your body. So, could tuning in with mindfulness exercises like a body scan help us get more in touch with our health in general?
Who doesn't have the odd pain here and there? A little twinge now and again, or a tension headache that lingers all day? These minor discomforts are usually a sign of stress, and we primarily tend to ignore them and push through with our busy lives.
However, research has shown that performing a 20-minute body scan each day could significantly reduce stress hormones in the body. Body scanning creates a mindful awareness, not ordinarily present and is a sensory exercise where you mentally draw attention to each area of your body. For example, if I asked how warm is your left foot, your attention would be drawn there now, in the present moment. Equally, during the body scan, you mentally draw attention to each area of your body, noticing any feelings or sensations in the body as you go.
So how does it work?
It's a bit like tuning in with a mental X-ray that slowly travels across your body. Just like when we eat in a rush, our body doesn't even notice that we've eaten half a tub of Ben & Jerry's until it's too late. Sometimes, we can get so caught up in our stress and anxiety that we don't even notice that the physical pain we're experiencing – like headaches, back and shoulder pain, and tense muscles – is connected to our emotional state. We only start to pay attention when the pain level is so intense that we feel desperate to do something about it.
Developing a greater awareness of the bodily sensations can help you to feel more connected to your physical self and gain greater insight into potential causes of unwanted feelings. The goal is not to relieve the pain completely, but to get to know it and learn from it, so you can better manage it. You can learn to relax more quickly if you are aware of what it feels like to be tense, or what it feels like to be relaxed, like that 'I've just had a massage" feeling!
When we feel stressed or anxious, as well as tensing the muscles in our bodies, our breathing tends to be faster and shallower too. We sometimes even hold our breath for short periods without even realising it, which has an impact on our overall wellbeing.
Think about how your body feels after a stressful day at work or a sleepless night. It's when we slow down that we start to notice the stiffness or the pain. When we hold our breath, it can lead to oxygen not getting to the parts of our body that need it, and this often results in high anxiety or stress within the body. By mentally scanning yourself and breathing into different parts of your body, you are bringing greater awareness and more oxygen to every part of your body, and noticing any aches, pains, tension or discomfort.
The importance of the breath
If you get in the habit of checking whether you are tense or relaxed 'right now', you will soon be able to recognise how tense you feel. The signs of tension are usually quite visible: a rigid body, anxious mind, aching shoulders or a knotted stomach. However, the best test of all is the breath.
If you notice your breathing is tense i.e. short and shallow, you only need a few deep breaths to start relaxing it. As your breathing loosens up, it has a ripple effect, acting as a guide and example for the rest of the body. As the body and mind are connected when the body is relaxed, the mind will also follow.
Try it for yourself
I have attached a guided mindful body scan meditation from my Meditation Masterclass for you to try at home. The most important thing is to be open to what your body is trying to tell you. Jotting down what you felt before and after the meditation can provide helpful insight.
Remember to be gentle and kind to yourself. This is not a time for self-criticism or negative self-talk. Accept what it there, and know that pain, tension and discomfort are only temporary. There is joy in the fact that you are taking this time out to strengthen your relationship with yourself.
"Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed" – Thich Nhat Hanh.