Mindfulness physical therapy, pain management, rehabilitation

Mindfulness and Body Awareness

How does mindfulness work? One proposed mechanism contributing to the beneficial effects of mindfulness training is improved body awareness.1 Body awareness is the ability to perceive physical sensations and is influenced by afferent and efferent neural processes, cognitive appraisal and unconscious modulation, and a person’s attitudes, beliefs and prior experiences.2 Mindfulness practice includes deliberately paying attention to the sensory experiences of breathing, individual body parts and the body as a whole, as well as to sensory experiences arising with emotional states.

Being at home and at ease in the world begins with being at home and at ease in one’s body. In addition, body awareness is needed to perform exercises correctly, make posture corrections, pace activity and self-regulate the stress reaction. Haase and colleagues suggest individuals with a diminished perception of incoming bodily signals may be impaired in their ability to use available information to make healthy choices and experience poor adaptation to stressful situations.3 This is consistent with my clinical experience. Without adequate body awareness, patients can unconsciously persist in behaviors that exacerbate their symptoms. In the words of one of my patients:

“I’ve been in physical therapy on and off for 5 years and until I learned about mindful awareness I couldn’t get the whole “stop when it hurts” instruction. I would constantly push my limits and stop when I couldn’t do something anymore, which was way too much and I would end up hurting myself. I didn’t have enough awareness of my body to recognize how much was enough.”

Mindful awareness practices provide rehab professionals with practical treatment strategies to help patients build the body awareness often needed for successful outcomes.

1Holzel BK, Lazar SW, Guard T, et al. How does mindfulness meditation work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspect Psychol Science. 2011;6(6):537–559.
2Mehling WE, Gopisetty V, Daubenmier J, et al. Body awareness: construct and self-report measures. PLoS ONE. 2009;4(5):e5614
3Haase L, Stewart J, Youssef B. When the brain does not adequately feel the body: Links between low resilience and interoception. Biol Psych. 2016;113:37-45.