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Stress Management > 4. Scanning relaxation


During the course of our days we tend to focus on our work, tasks, and communication with others and ignore our bodies as long as there is no pain or discomfort. Then when the discomfort breaks into our awareness, we don't have time to deal with it, so we pop a pain reliever, smoke a cigarette, get a cup of coffee or have an alcoholic drink. Then we can keep going, getting that work accomplished or avoid dealing with the causes of the discomfort. We ignore our body's signals that we are distressed. Sometimes our ways of dealing with the discomfort actually add to the stress on our bodies.

Body scanning is an extension of progressive muscle relaxation. As you learn to identify areas in your body where you store up tension, you will want to use this information to intervene on a regular basis to stop the build up and reduce the tension. When you begin using body scanning, it may be more effective to lie down or sit in a comfortable chair in which you can let go of all muscles which keep you erect. Close your eyes and focus your mind on specific body parts one at a time. Notice whether they are tense or relaxed. Notice any discomfort. Then allow those body parts to go completely limp; let them relax. As you focus on a body part you may not be able to identify any tension. It may be that you have become accustomed to the tension and accept it as a part of living. In the beginning stages of learning to do body scanning you can add one of the following steps. As you focus on a body part take one hand and touch the part or squeeze lightly the muscles in that part. You may become more aware of the tension or discomfort in the muscles using this step. Another way of accomplishing this objective is to briefly tense the muscles in that body part. Only a second or less is adequate to help you become more aware of the muscles in that part of your body. After you have practiced for a while you will learn to better identify tension, and you can revert to simply focusing on the body part. After you focus on each body part and notice the tension, let go of all tension and relax the specific muscle groups. Again you can use the same muscle groups identified in the progressive muscle relaxation exercise or your can use an abbreviated list suggested by Charlesworth and Nathan in their book, Stress Management: A comprehensive guide to wellness (see bibliography). They recommend the following muscle groups in order: face and neck, shoulders and arms, chest and lungs, stomach area, legs and feet. Charlesworth and Nathan also suggest combining breathing with body scanning. As you breathe in, focus on the body part; as you breathe out, let go of the tension in that group of muscles. This exercise is another one that can be used easily and confidentially throughout your day. After you become accomplished at it you can do a body scan and relax some parts of your body anywhere. Think of all the times during your day when you have to wait: in the doctor's office, in the grocery line, waiting for a prescription at the pharmacy, waiting for a stop light, waiting for or riding the elevator, waiting at the copy machine, waiting for your computer to download something off the internet or run a program, waiting for a commercial break on TV, waiting for the water to boil on the stove, waiting for a meeting to start. Use these times on a regular basis to remind yourself to do a body scan.

Author: David W. Kidder, Ph.D.

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