This Desk Body Scan Will Add Mindfulness To Your Busy Workday In 5 Minutes

Written by Shonda Moralis, MSW, LCSW
Shonda Moralis, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in stress related disorders and mindfulness-based therapy. She writes the Psychology Today blog, "Breathe, Mama, Breathe," and has developed and taught mindfulness courses and workshops for children, parents, teachers, and students.

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Although we believe that mindfulness is an essential factor in optimizing our well-being, we realize that sometimes it can be difficult to find the time to enter a meditative head space, especially during a busy workday. That's why we love Breathe, Empower, Achieve: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Women Who Do It All by Shonda Moralis, MSW, LCSW, as it offers actionable tips to practice meditation wherever you are—from the desk to the gym to the supermarket; the list goes on. Here, Moralis offers a five-minute meditation for those of us who want to add a little mindfulness in the workplace. By reconnecting with our bodies, we can not only release physical tension but also calm our minds and bring ourselves back to the present. This little five-minute mindfulness session could have long-lasting effects for your nine-to-five.

Each of us has a signature pattern of holding stress in the body—there are certain muscles we tighten and common areas of tension. For some, anxiety manifests as fierce pressure, as if the head were stuck in a constricting vise; others bemoan a constant aching discomfort in their neck and shoulders, while some suffer from stomach ailments that send them sprinting for the nearest restroom when worries abound. While we may be highly attuned to a few of our signature stress patterns, others may be more sporadic and inconspicuous, requiring some routine mindful sleuthing on our part.

Soon after I began practicing mindfulness, it became clear to me that the region of my lower back and butt would tighten when I was feeling anxious or overwhelmed, resulting in muscle fatigue and soreness. One might surmise that my chronic stress would have graciously resulted in rock-hard glutes, but no, of course not.

The only notable secondary consequence was chronic sciatica, quite literally an irritating pain in my butt. How's that for irony? There was no need to investigate this constellation of sensations closely, as the relentless, nagging discomfort made itself obvious. It was only after a few years of practice, though, that I began to notice how increased stress unconsciously caused me to tense my left calf muscle as well. One morning after an especially challenging confrontational couples therapy session, I recall wondering why in the world only my left calf was sore and fatigued. It took time and repetition to realize that this is one of my signature areas of stress. The past few years, I have morphed into more of a shoulder-and-neck-tension kinda girl, the tightness taking up residence after hours of working at a computer and reading. And so it goes.

You might ask: Why in the world would I want to actually focus on areas of discomfort in my body? Great question! Thanks for playing. Despite the prevalent, tempting tendency to disregard the intricate yet undeniable connection between our bodies and minds, it is vital to our overall physical and mental well-being that we pay closer attention. The purpose of the desk body scan is threefold.

No. 1 is to pull us out of automatic pilot, bring us back to the present moment, and offer some immediate calm so that we are able to think clearly and prioritize wisely. Imagine how you might enter into the next meeting or conversation differently, perhaps more creatively, and with a more open-minded approach if given a moment to first pause and relax your body. (Even better, imagine if all your colleagues did the same.)

Two, the desk body scan is a mindful break designed to bring your full awareness to the ever-changing body sensations in the middle of a busy day, teaching you to recognize which sensations are present in your body in this moment. Instead of walking around unaware that we have actual feeling, sensing bodies attached to our intellectual heads—bodies we tend to discount, minimize, or flat-out ignore—we become more intimately aware of our subtle physical sensations as well as how they change in nuance and in intensity. As with my experience, your unique patterns can shift over time, so it is helpful to monitor them on an ongoing basis.

Finally, it is important to familiarize ourselves with common sensations and our signature stress areas because the more aware we are, the quicker we can cue in to when we are stressed, which, as in the case of my left calf muscle, is not always immediately apparent. Only when we are mindful are we able to act on our own behalf. Now when I notice an ache in my shoulders, it is a reminder to slowly drop them, take a deep breath, and sit up tall, perhaps adding a nice stretch, gently leaning my head back and gazing upward. It is also an opportunity for me to pause and inquire into my current overall level of stress, giving me valuable information to work with and the ability to make small, subtle recalibrations in my life.

The Desk-Body Scan Mindful Break

  1. You can practice this mindful break with eyes open or closed, depending on your level of privacy and comfort. Sit up tall. Imagine there is an invisible chord running from your tailbone up through the spine, gently pulling skyward through the top of the head, elongating the back and neck.
  2. Drop your shoulders and allow your hands to rest on the armrests or your lap. Now bring your attention to the feet, noticing any subtle sensations such as warmth, coolness, or pressure where the shoes are touching the feet. With an attitude of curiosity, notice sensations in the ankles, lower legs, knees, and upper legs, allowing a few seconds to rest your awareness at each area. When thoughts arise (Oh, that's right, I need shoes for my cousin's wedding! When will I get to the store? My pants are tight. I need to get back to the gym. No dessert for me tonight! Hey, speaking of food...I'm kinda hungry. I wonder what we're ordering for lunch), brush them gently aside and redirect your attention to the area where you left off. You might also deliberately soften or relax each of these areas as you investigate sensations along the way.
  3. As if you've never noticed these areas before (and maybe you haven't!), scan through the lower, middle, and upper back and shoulders, arms, wrists, and hands. Next, turn your attention to the belly, chest, neck and throat, jaw, cheeks, lips, mouth, and tongue. Bring awareness to the eyes, brow, forehead, and scalp. Then notice the body in its entirety, seated and calm(er). Now usher this embodied awareness into the next part of your workday, returning your attention to your slightly more familiar body at any time.
  4. Adapt the desk body scan to fit the amount of time you have available to you (anywhere from a brief 30-second scan to a more leisurely five-minute break), your surroundings (sitting at your desk at work, in your car in the parking lot, or lying down in bed at home), and your level of privacy. (In more open workspaces, you can sit quietly with eyes open for a moment or two, and no one will be the wiser. In fact, they may mistake your mindful break for deep, pensive work-related brainstorming, which in reality it might lead to.) Over time you will more readily notice subtle body sensations as well as become more acquainted with your unique stress signature areas. Use this information wisely, honoring the messages your body is sending you.

Pause. Slow down. Pay attention. Stretch. Rest. Move. Breathe. Your body and mind will thank you.

Excerpted from Breathe, Empower, Achieve: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Women Who Do It All © Shonda Moralis, 2019. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment, theexperimentpublishing.com. Available wherever books are sold,

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