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Body Awareness and Stress Reduction

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Are you aware of your body right now? Where are your feet and hands placed, is your head tilted, are your shoulders hunched or bowed? 

Body awareness is part of self-awareness. When you exercise body awareness, you pay attention to your body’s position in space, the messages it is sending you (pain, relaxation, stress), and its relationship to other people and things in your environment (standing too close, standing too far).

The interplay of mind and body is central to such mindfulness practices as meditation, focused breathing, and visualization. If your body is cramped and tensed, your mind is distracted and stressed by discomfort; if you are stressed, your body tenses and becomes cramped and uncomfortable. 

How Does Body Awareness Affect Your Mood?

Researchers have found that even a fake smile will create a feeling of happiness. In one study, both fake and tentative smiles lowered heart rate and reduced stress almost as well as a full smile (also known as a Duchenne smile, in which the eyes crinkle). As the researchers stated, “there are both physiological and psychological benefits from maintaining positive facial expressions during stress.”

The loss of the ability to even fake emotion is devastating. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in trauma treatment, found that trauma desensitizes the body and, therefore, a traumatized person experiences a lack of trust in their own inner and body sensations about situations and people. They are blocked from forming relationships with themselves and other people and from feeling fully alive in the present. He feels that it essential “to teach breathing and movement and work with the parts of the brain most affected by trauma.”

How Does Body Awareness Affect Your Relationship to the World?

When you are aware of your body, you are able to:

  • Manipulate your face, hands, and stance to convey ideas (happiness, sadness, friendship).
  • Use posture and stance to relay qualities such as confidence, resilience, and leadership.
  • Establish appropriate boundaries between your own personal space and the space of others.
  • Adjust your physical and mental speed.
  • Adjust your strength relative to the task.
  • Orient yourself in space.
  • Safely exercise and build your body.

Your awareness of your body in space is called proprioception—agility, balance, and coordination. Stress attacks your proprioception, which might lead a stressed person to drop things or respond in outsize ways to situations. Interoception is the awareness of heat, cold, tension, and other sensations (such as respiration and heart rate) that allow you to recognize when your body is stressed.

TIP: Nonverbal communication signals, through gestures, facial expressions, and posture, send signals to the rest of the world about how we are feeling and thinking—even if we aren’t aware of them.


Exercises for Body Awareness

The following body scan exercise is similar to those used in progressive muscle relaxation, except that you are not using focused breathing, but merely becoming more sensitive to your body and its interconnections:

  • Lay down in a comfortable spot.
  • Tense the toes in one foot, then relax.
  • Tense the toes in the opposite foot, then relax.
  • Proceed side-to-side up the length of your body, tensing and then relaxing individual muscles.
  • Roll your neck.
  • Turn your head gently from side to side.
  • Move your chin toward your chest.
  • Touch your tongue to your teeth.
  • Relax your jaw.
  • Scrunch and release your face.
  • Lay quietly and listen to the room; feel the flow of air over your body; smell the scents of the place.

Grounding exercises begin from a seated position.

  • Make sure your feet touch the floor. Close your eyes.
  • Try to push your feet through the floor.
  • Relax.
  • Now imagine the earth pulling your stress and tension down.
  • Everything drains from each part of your body down into the earth.

A change of habits may improve your experience of physical pain and discomfort and therefore your overall stress. You stress your body if you always carry a bag on the same shoulder, cross your legs with the same leg on top, look up at the television, look down at your cell phone, or lock your knees when you stand. You might also try slowing down—to fully experience touch, feel, taste, sight, and sound rather than rushing through your everyday movement in your habitual manner. 

TIP: Mindful slowing down relieves anxiety, even with everyday tasks like reaching for the stapler on your desk or walking to a restaurant for lunch. Experiment by deliberately slowing down your normal walking pace and experiencing the change in stress and anxiety. 

Fixed movement is an exercise where you take a comfortable position and then move one body part at a time, keeping the others still. The movements are small and gentle. Among other types of fixed movement are the Feldenkrais Method and the Alexander Technique.

Practice balance by standing with your feet hip-width apart and then shifting your weight from the right to the left. Take note of the sensation as the center of your gravity changes. Close your eyes and repeat. 

Walking meditation also improves balance. Walk slowly along a straight length of 10 to 20 feet. Focus on the experience of walking, not on the environment or a goal, but on the movement itself and how your body maintains its balance. Turn and walk slowly back with the same awareness.

Learn how to play with your body. Children learn their body parts and how to use them by playing games like Simon Says or Twister and singing songs like the Hokey Pokey (“put your right hand in, take your right hand out, put your right hand in and shake it all about”). Revive that childhood play (safely—children are a lot more flexible than adults!) to increase your body awareness.

TIP: Play produces endorphins—the feel good chemical. If you play with your coworkers—a lunchtime game of cards or Scrabble or shooting hoops—you build relationships and relieve tension and stress. It also stimulates creative thinking. Remember to focus on play, not competition.


Quadrupedal movement enhances your muscle sense, often called the sixth sense. Muscle sense is our ability to understand where we are in space even with our eyes closed. To exercise your muscle sense: 

  • Lower yourself to your hands and knees.
  • Float up your right hand and left knee, and lower them to move forward.
  • Alternative sides as you crawl forwards, then backwards.
  • Next, squat down and lower your hands to the ground.
  • Pop your body up and pivot yourself until you face front.
  • Circle your body in the opposite direction.

Qigong is one of many mind/body practices (including yoga and Dahnhak) that put you in touch with the energy of your body. Here is a sample exercise:

  • Sit on the floor or comfortably on a chair.
  • Put your hands on your knees with your palms facing up.
  • With eyes closed, breathe slowly in and out three times.
  • Open your eye.
  • Raise your arms, your hands, and your fingers.
  • With your relaxed hands facing each other, tap your fingers together for one minute. Halfway through, close your eyes to more deeply experience the sensation in your fingertips.
  • Keep your wrists, hand, and fingers relaxed and shake them side to side for one minute. Again, close  your eyes halfway through.
  • Rub your palms together rapidly for 30 seconds.
  • Bring your palms close to each other, but not quite touching.
  • Focus on the space between the palms and the sensation between them for one minute. Close your eyes if that helps.
  • Move your palms apart, then closer. The movement is almost like a bird spreading its wings. Think of your lungs expanding and contracting.
  • Lift and circle your arms to surround your entire body with the energy between your palms.

Key Takeaways

Your awareness of your body has an impact on your moods, regulating your reaction and other people’s reaction to both positive emotions (happiness, confidence) and negative emotions (stress, overwhelm, anxiety). Moreover, your body sense affects how you position yourself in space and relative to other people and things. The greater your body awareness, the greater your overall self-awareness, and your ability to judge how well you and your environment are interacting.

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