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A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder, Part 2: Develop Body Awareness

This is the second in a series of 26 posts covering a variety of stress management tools and techniques, starting with the letter A. For some background information on stress and bipolar disorder, the blogger recommends reading her three-part series, “Getting a Handle on Stress When You Have Bipolar Disorder,” starting with the first one

Welcome to the A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder. In this series I will give you a wide variety of stress management tools and techniques to try. Some go hand and hand, and some may appear contradictory—for example, changing your thoughts and accepting your thoughts can both work. Everyone is different. There will probably be some methods you like and some that don’t work for you. Also, a particular tool or technique may work better in some situations than in others. Keep an open mind, experiment, and discover what helps most. 

And now for “B”: Develop Body Awareness

Body awareness means focusing on and recognizing what’s going on in the inner world of your body: sensations, emotions, breath, muscle tension, position in space, and so on. It involves tuning in to and perceiving what’s going on inside. Many of us are cut off from our embodied experience and live in our thoughts—but the body can be a huge source of comfort, knowledge, and wisdom. 

Body awareness is at the core of many stress management methods. Many tools and techniques work in part because they direct your attention to your internal experience. Body awareness helps in a number of ways: 

1. The very act of bringing attention to your body can increase relaxation. When you activate the body sense (the state of attending to and perceiving your body without judgment), you also activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming system that turns off the fight or flight response) and reduce stress hormones. 

2. Being “in your body” by definition means being in the present moment—not stressing out over things that have happened in the past or might happen in the future. 

3. Paying attention to your body allows for self-awareness. It serves as a sort of barometer of your present-moment experience, enabling you to: 

  • Notice nervous system arousal—that is, when you start to go into fight or flight mode (“I’m getting tense”; “I’m holding my breath”) 
  • Be aware of your emotions (“I feel overwhelmed”; “I feel afraid”) 
  • Notice pain or discomfort in your body—for example when you’re exercising too hard or when you’ve been sitting too long 
  • Be aware of your physiological needs—when you’re hungry, thirsty, tired, etc. 
  • Notice the effects of coping strategies—are they working or not? 

This awareness empowers you to:

  • Recognize when you need to use a coping strategy, or change strategies if the one you’re using isn’t working 
  • Know when you need to take a break or slow down 
  • Recognize your limits so you don’t get in or stay in situations that don’t work for you 
  • Respond to your needs by practicing self-care (eating, drinking water, sleeping, etc.) 
  • Catch pain and tension early before they get too bad. 

How do you develop body awareness? 

There are many ways to increase body awareness. Some involve movement. Others involve being still and bringing your attention inside. Still others involve increasing sensation in the body from the outside through weight or pressure. Here are some examples: 

  • Self-awareness practices such as various forms of yoga and martial arts, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, or Pilates 
  • Athletic pursuits or weight lifting 
  • Dance (either free form or specific forms of dance like ballet—both have pros and cons) 
  • Horseback riding (this may not available to too many people, but it’s a great one; you can look for therapeutic riding programs in your area) 
  • Inward-focused mindfulness practices such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Focusing 
  • Massage from a licensed practitioner, or various massage tools you can use at home 
  • Weighted blankets (these are used for kids with autism and related disorders, but they can also be helpful for adults with a variety of conditions; make sure you use one that works for your body size, weight, and sensitivity level) 
  • Working with a psychotherapist who specializes in body or somatic psychotherapy (for example, a practitioner of somatic experiencing, a therapy used for trauma and stress) 

You can also use simple methods such as these: 

  • Sensing your arms and legs 
  • Noticing your feet on the floor or your back and bottom on the surface you’re sitting on 
  • Bringing awareness to your breath 
  • Rubbing your palms together for 20 seconds or so and then feeling the sensations in your hands. 

For some people (for example, those who have a trauma history or who have anxiety about unusual body sensations), focusing on the body can be triggering. If that’s the case it’s helpful to ease in by focusing only on comfortable or neutral parts of the body, or to get guidance from a professional. 

Biofeedback

Another way to gain body awareness and reduce stress is through biofeedback. Biofeedback takes body awareness to another level. It uses instruments to detect states in the body such as muscle tension, skin temperature, brainwave activity, skin conductance, blood pressure, and heart rate. It gives you instant feedback so you can observe the effect of your thoughts and behaviors on your physical responses. Biofeedback promotes relaxation and can relieve muscle tension, headaches, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and insomnia (among other things). 

Biofeedback generally involves 10 to 15 sessions with a professional, though there are a number of quality devices you can use at home. The EMWAVE2, a small device that gives feedback on heart rate variability, is one example. 

My personal experience: I’ve had an interest in body awareness and mind-body practices for a long time. I was fortunate to go through a Master’s program in counseling with a somatic psychotherapy emphasis. The program focused almost as much on our own personal development as it did on clinical skills, so I’ve had many opportunities to practice body awareness. It’s been one of the most important things in my own recovery from bipolar disorder. 

I’ll give one recent example that shows how I use body awareness to reduce stress. I was working on an unpleasant work-related computer task that I really needed to get done and had decided to finish before I moved on to other work. I was feeling stressed because of time pressure and because the task was somewhat difficult for me. My mind kept drifting to other things I needed or wanted to be doing.

I’d been on my computer for almost 2 hours when it dawned on me that I had lost touch with my body (I’m usually better about taking more frequent breaks). I stopped the task and sensed into my arms and legs. My breath immediately became slower and deeper (in my experience, activating the body sense almost always relaxes my breathing right away). I noticed pain in my back and tension in my neck from sitting. I also noticed I was tired. I got up to stretch and move around and do some other activities for a while. When I returned to the task, I felt more awake and alert, less stressed, and in a better state of mind to continue. 

How to start: Try a body scan. The body scan is an ancient meditation technique that can be done in a variety of ways. The idea is to scan your attention through your body, part by part. The body scan is used in MBSR, a popular and effective program that is taught around the world. You can try a simple MBSR 20 Minute Body Scan (find it under “Guided Audio Meditations”) to start. 

Additional resources: You can use the links I’ve provided above for further information on the tools and techniques I’ve mentioned. Also, The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook has a good section on body awareness. 

You can find the rest of Carrie’s IBPF posts here or read additional articles on her Addiction.com blog. You can also visit the website for Counseling and More, her private practice, or Bipolar Beast, a company designed to empower people with bipolar disorder. 

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