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You can learn a lot about yourself by assessing how your body is feeling through body scan meditation. Join us for a head-to-toe scan during this chat with Dr. Melissa Young, a functional medicine specialist.

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The Power of Body Scan Meditation

Podcast Transcript

John Horton: Hey there, and welcome to the Health Essentials podcast. I'm John Horton, your host. Today, we're going to chat about full body scans, but not the type where you go to a medical center and slide into a donut-shaped tube. No, the scan we're focusing on is one that you can do by yourself, anywhere you are, and the only equipment that you need is an open mind.

Body scan meditation is a technique to help you increase awareness of your body and really truly assess how you're feeling. Basically, it's a way for you to become more connected with yourself. To help us look inward, we're joined by functional medicine specialist, Melissa Young. Dr. Young is one of the many experts at Cleveland Clinic who pop into our weekly podcast to offer health tips that you can trust. So let's get started.

Dr. Young, welcome back. Always a treat to have you on the podcast.

Dr. Melissa Young: Oh, thank you so much for having me. It's always a treat to get together and talk about these ways to manage stress better.

John Horton: You always give us just some fabulous advice on how we can do a little more self-care and just kind of reflection. I take it that's something that you talk to people about all day long.

Dr. Melissa Young: I do. I think it's such an important topic and often an area of medicine that maybe is neglected to some degree. Most people aren't aware that on average, 70 to 90 percent of visits to our primary care visits are related in some way to stress. And I think that it's become more and more clear how stress can adversely affect the body and lead to chronic symptoms of fatigue and insomnia, worsen high blood pressure, headaches. And the wonderful thing is there are techniques that help sort of mitigate that and calm that down in the body and help the body and the mind to calm down.

John Horton: Definitely, definitely. And that's why we're here today. So let's get going with talking about body scan meditation. And can you give us a basic explanation of what it is and why somebody might want to give it a try?

Dr. Melissa Young: Sure, absolutely. So, I think sometimes, we're just so busy, we're often in that fight-or-flight mode and we may not really be aware of what's happening in our body. And I think there's can be a very big disconnect between the body and the mind, and we're really trying to bring that together.

So, the body scan really originated with mind-body stress reduction brought to the United States by Jon Kabat-Zinn back in the 70s. And it's about taking time to scan through all parts of the body from head to toe and checking in with the sensations in the body, how does the body feel.

The goal here is not really to change anything, it's to build an ongoing present moment awareness of how we're feeling because, again, we disconnect so much. And that connection then gives us power to just stay in the moment and not worry and think, or overthink, I should say, about our stress in our life or even pain or a bodily sensation.

John Horton: So, your body scan is basically you're just doing an inventory up and down.

Dr. Melissa Young: Absolutely. And spending a little time on every body part. Are you feeling pressure or tingling and are you feeling something pleasurable in the body? But not being attached to that feeling, what we label good or bad, and just nonattachment, and just going through that inventory and where are you in that moment.

John Horton: And then, from that point, you can start moving into other forms of meditation or self-care to kind of address what you found?

Dr. Melissa Young: Yes, I think there can be a piece of that that we take one step further from the body scan, and especially if we're doing, say, a short body scan, and we really do find a lot of stress. Or say, we're going into a meeting and we want to just take a moment, scan through our body, where is there tension? Visualizing the release of that tension I think can be so powerful.

I think we were talking last night very briefly of how you do a body scan even when you're running to where's tension, where can you release that to have a better run. We can do those techniques in the moment to help us be more effective in life.

John Horton:I have a lot of aches when I run, Dr. Young. I'm just trying to do an inventory to see what's falling apart at various points.

Dr. Melissa Young: Well, I appreciate that. Yes.

John Horton: What does someone need to know to get started on this form of meditation?

Dr. Melissa Young: So, I think that we're so lucky at this point in time that we have all these wonderful meditation apps on our phones. We can go online and actually get a guided body scan or a guided meditation as we're learning how to do these things. And there's some great books as well. So I like people to be able to utilize those resources, as they're new to something, to learn how to do it.

But in general, the simplicity can't be underestimated. You can sit, you can lie down and basically start at the top of your head, go to the face, the shoulders, the neck, the arms, the legs, and just what are you feeling? What are you feeling in that moment?

And even when we're doing that, our mind may wander. We've talked in the past, John, about other types of meditation. And we don't quiet the mind. It will be busy. It will have comments. And we sometimes have the inner critic or we're thinking about our grocery list. And it's like, we can thank our mind for sharing, and then go back to the present moment awareness of what are we feeling, what are the sensations in our body.

John Horton: Is this the sort of thing where you see some immediate benefits or does it take time to set in?

Dr. Melissa Young: I think both. So we absolutely can see immediate benefits. But the more we practice these techniques on a regular basis, and, quite honestly, I think incorporate it into our self-care, the nervous system remembers how to relax and come out of the sympathetic fight-or-flight mode into parasympathetic rest and digest, that relaxation mode, more easily. And it benefits our health short term and long term.

John Horton: Well, and I assume it's something that there's not really metrics to it, which is probably something that adds stress to most of our lives. How should you go into it with the expectations?

Dr. Melissa Young: And thank you so much for bringing that up. I think we do talk so much about utilizing all these techniques to manage trust, to feel better. In reality, they weren't created for that. And there really isn't a desired outcome in the true sense of utilizing these wonderful ancient techniques. It's the process. It's the journey.

I think as Americans, we're used to focusing on, we want to relax and we want to do that well. And I do think there are those benefits and there's benefits to calming our physiology. But it shouldn't necessarily always be the focus of using this technique, or any of these techniques really.

John Horton: Great advice. Let's take a minute, if you can, and kind of walk us through a mini scan so we can kind of see what it feels like.

Dr. Melissa Young: Sure, absolutely.

So if people are comfortable, they can close their eyes. They can either be sitting, they can be lying down. And let's start with just taking one or two deep breaths. So slow breath in through the nose and then out through the mouth. And again, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Wonderful.

And then let's start with letting our shoulders drop and getting settled into our bodies. And then starting at the top of the head, just becoming aware of your head, the sensations you feel there. It could be tension, it could be heat, could be a pulsing quality. And no need to have a judgment about that. It's just an awareness.

And then, we'll gently come down to our shoulders and our upper back. What sensations are there for you? Could be tightness, could be lightness. Whatever it is, it's perfect in this moment.

And then coming down to our chests and our belly, what are we feeling in those areas? And then, if you're sitting in a chair, coming to pay attention to the sensation of your body in the chair. If you're lying down, the sensation of your back on the floor or on your bed. And just being aware in that moment what the sensations are.

Then, moving down to your thighs, becoming aware of tension or other sensations there. No need to try to change them in this moment. Coming down to our knees, how do they feel? And moving down to our lower legs, how do they feel against the chair or against the floor? What does that feel like in this moment?

And coming down to our feet and our toes, bringing awareness to those areas of the body. And again, right now, no need to change anything, just becoming aware.

And then, slowly and gently bringing your attention back to the room, taking a slow deep breath, and gently opening your eyes if they were closed.

Now, we did that in record time. Usually, we spend a lot more time in each body part. We'd do the left hand, the right hand, right arm, left arm. But it's just slowing things down. And what are you feeling? We're not usually paying attention to sensations in our body. And because some of those sensations are unpleasant, we're trying to push them away. We're just trying not to label. But what is that feeling? What is that sensation?

John Horton: Do you find when people do this, does creating that awareness kind of help you deal with whatever the situation is and either an acceptance of it or just kind of rationalizing it a little more so that way you kind of feel more relaxed about it?

Dr. Melissa Young: Yes, absolutely. I think we spend so much time and energy, probably unconsciously a lot of the time, pushing away what we think is bad, unpleasant. And they found with the body scan, that present moment awareness over time, with less judgment, it helps with patients with chronic pain, chronic tension, chronic anxiety, absolutely because it changes your awareness.

I think it's always important to say that for some people who have more severe anxiety or have a history of trauma in their past, sometimes, becoming more aware of what's happening in our body can bring up those feelings and more intensity, and you would want to work with a therapist who could help with those traumatic experiences that come up.

So always be aware if things are unmanageable as you become more aware of what's in your body and use your judgment about whether that's a good fit for you, you need some professional guidance with that.

And one other caveat, even though if we're in traffic, we certainly, for stress, can use some of the breathing techniques we've talked about previously. We don't want to do meditation when we're driving, when we need to be focusing, but we could take some breaths to just calm ourselves down. But don't do these things driving heavy machinery or our cars.

John Horton: And definitely keep your eyes open in those situations.

Dr. Melissa Young: Exactly. It's very helpful.

John Horton: Dr. Young, whenever we get done talking, there's just like a sense of calm I always feel, so I thank you for that. And I can't wait to have you back on the show.

Dr. Melissa Young: It's always a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

John Horton: All right, thanks. Bye-bye.

Dr. Melissa Young: Bye-bye.

John Horton: So, if you want to gain a better understanding of yourself and how you're feeling, it seems a good place to start is with a willingness to look deep inside. So set aside a few minutes for a self-scan. Might be pretty revealing. Till next time, be well.

Speaker 3: Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

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