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Practice Embodiment for Trauma Recovery
Embodiment is an active process of self-discovery that you renew and strengthen by repeatedly attending to your sensations, emotions, and instinctual movement impulses. Mindful body-awareness practices help you learn to sustain the focus of your attention on how your body feels or moves in the present moment.
Embodiment in trauma recovery involves setting aside time to focus your attention on your breath and body sensations as related to traumatic events. You attend to the burdens of adversity, whether they reside in your body. This could manifest as protective armoring or a loss of integrity at your core, leaving you feeling collapsed and defeated.
Awakening to your felt sense allows you to reclaim healing movements. You release defensive bracing or vigilance from your body and mind. You explore moving out of freeze or collapse modes and into the presence of a balanced and regulated nervous system. With regular practice, you accumulate a reservoir of embodied wisdom that resides as a reliably accessible sense of self.
Often, we think of intelligence as our knowledge of facts, as it is traditionally measured through mental and verbal capacities. However, kinesthetic awareness is a form of somatic intelligence. Paying attention to your felt sense of self provides information that can wisely guide your decisions and actions in the world. Embodiment increases your emotional intelligence and enhances interpersonal relationships as you will be more sensitive to the needs or emotions of others.
The vagus nerve is an essential part of this information highway. Awakening your mind-body connection also helps to improve your physical health. Listening to your body sensations allows you to notice feelings of discomfort, which can lead you to move in an intuitive manner that helps you to release tension naturally. For example, perhaps you have been sitting in one position for too long and suddenly become aware that your foot has fallen asleep. Now you can explore a new way of sitting or moving to restore blood flow to this area.
In truth, we all have aspects of ourselves that are asleep, sometimes as a way of disconnecting from painful emotions or memories that were once overwhelming. Embodiment in trauma recovery offers opportunities to compassionately awaken these parts of yourself that have been hiding beneath the lens of your awareness.
Dissociation from the Body
As you cultivate your ability to stay present with sensations, you will also become adept at recognizing when you disconnect from the body. It is completely normal to lose awareness of your felt sense of self at times. However, if you have a history of trauma you may have learned to dissociate from your body as a survival-based coping mechanism.
You might notice a desire to avoid or escape uncomfortable sensations or emotions. This can arise as fidgeting, being “in your head,” feeling distracted or pushing yourself physically in a way that overrides your sensations. You may need to proceed slowly with mindful body awareness, especially if you are prone to dissociation. This allows you to consciously choose how you would like to respond to distress.
Embodiment in Relationship
Embodiment is an ever-changing, dynamic relationship between you, your circumstances, your relationships, and the world. In other words, how you feel in your body will change depending on many factors. These include what you eat, how you sleep, where you are, who you are, and what is happening around you.
This was especially true in your earliest relationships with the caregivers who shaped your sense of self. A sensitive caregiver attunes to an infant’s facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures, and body movements. This attunement guides the caregiver’s use of touch, eye contact, tone of voice, and the timing of interactions. Over time, the accumulation of these empathic relational exchanges reinforces our ability to feel connected to our bodies, recognize our emotions, and respond effectively to our needs.
This is why childhood neglect or abuse can leave a powerful imprint on you physically and emotionally. An infant cannot flee from or fight against a frightening or hurtful caregiver. This can make them more likely to collapse into immobilization, fall asleep, or dissociate.
Embodiment and Trauma Recovery
With a history of trauma, any embodiment practice can be a vulnerable undertaking. We cannot deny the impact of unresolved trauma on the body. It is often said that “our issues are in our tissues” and that they impact how we move and breathe. Perhaps you find yourself avoiding embodiment practices because they evoke difficult emotions, such as shame or grief.
Mindful body awareness might also evoke difficult feelings if your relationship with your body is complicated by a negative body image, feelings of self-loathing, or gender dysphoria, in which you feel a mismatch between your physical body and the felt sense of your own gender identity. If you find that relating to your body brings up difficult beliefs or emotions, try to focus on what your body is capable of doing rather than what it looks like. For example, you might say to yourself, “My body is strong!” or “My body is wise!” Ask what your body needs from you rather than trying to change or control your body.
Embodiment as a Practice
Embodiment in trauma recovery involves setting aside time to focus your attention on your breath and body sensations. This can be done while resting in stillness or during mindful movements. Explore the practices that nourish your soul—mindful walking in nature, yoga, tai chi, and seated meditation. Or, you can explore embodiment in trauma treatment within somatic therapy with the caring and compassionate presence of a psychotherapist who can help you turn toward your pain.
Since vulnerable feelings cannot be entirely eliminated, mindful body awareness involves learning to accept, rather than merely tolerate, the presence of your own painful emotions. With acceptance, you can recognize that your emotions and sensations are not permanent. Rather, they come and go like waves on the ocean. The most important element for sustaining a regular embodiment practice is finding sufficient reward as you deepen your healing journey. Rather than pushing yourself into a practice, see if you can find enough support so that even the challenging emotional moments feel healing for your soul.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Arielle Schwartz.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is also the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, a trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology, mindfulness-based therapies, and time-tested relational psychotherapy.