Embodiment: A Healing Tool
A note from Michelle Kelly
sex therapist | trauma therapist
I’ll never forget the moment I went from a vibrant, full of life, joyful, embodied young dancer to an embarrassed and ashamed child feeling like I needed to hide my authentic self. I was dancing my heart out with passion, purpose and exhilaration when I heard the words, “You’re such a show off!” My youthful spirit recoiled and I learned the shame belief, “I have to hold back who I am so people will like me”. This is simply one example, of hundreds that occurred, that impacted me to feel disconnected from and untrusting of my body and my experiences. Although there were likely far more moments of praise and support, I unconsciously experienced a common human phenomenon - the negativity bias.
What's the negativity bias?
Research suggests, the “tendency to dwell on the negative more than the positive is simply one way the brain tries to keep us safe...While we may no longer need to be on constant high alert as our early ancestors needed to be in order to survive, the negativity bias still has a starring role in how our brains operate.” (1)
If you'd like to learn more about the negativity bias, how our experiences impact our perceptions and gain some wonderful healing tools, I suggest the engaging book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.
Why does the negativity bias matter?
When human beings experience trauma/shame, the negativity bias kicks in. Although it’s intended to protect us, it keeps our bodies in distress when there’s no longer a threat. When learning about trauma and the body’s natural responses to it, there's vast amounts of information available. You can choose to do a deep dive and read books such as The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Or, you can turn to simple, yet helpful resources such as Trauma and the Brain: An Interactive Infographic.
Whatever depth of education you pursue on your journey, one fact remains: The human body responds the same whether there's a real threat or a perceived threat.
Unhealed wounds impact your perception of reality.
Until you process and heal your trauma/shame, it will impact your perceptions of reality. Your body may send signals of danger, even when you’re safe. Despite experiencing more neutral and positive moments throughout the day, your body will likely not register this. Instead, it remains fixated on the negative and the perception of danger. This is an exhausting experience and often leads to feeling hopeless and out of control. Overtime, the unresolved trauma/shame will manifest in physical, emotional and relational symptoms.
To sum it up, the negativity bias and our body’s responses to trauma/shame disconnect us from the present moment. This is the opposite of embodiment.
Embodiment is a practice that allows you to connect to the here and now by using your amazing body as a resource for healing. Your ability to connect to the present moment through your senses is one you were born with. Imagine following a group of toddlers through a mountain meadow filled with wildflowers and butterflies. Their senses ignite with wonder and awe as they relish in the present moment. They’re embodied. They feel engaged and safe in the present moment.
Embodiment practice also includes tuning in to disturbance. Our bodies are wise and exceptionally capable at informing us when something is wrong or in need of our attention. Most of us can tell when we need to go to the bathroom, blow our nose or tend to a wound if we burn ourselves on the stove. These are simple, relatively neutral experiences we are used to attending to. However, many have learned to ignore or avoid distressing body cues (i.e. thoughts, emotions, body sensations) because it feels unsafe to approach them, they don't know how to process what's happening, they learned it isn't ok to feel their emotions or trust their experiences (e.g. family of origin shaming a child for expressing themselves) or they may be embarrassed or confused about what they're experiencing.
Many people try to numb their distress. This creates more problems. Although avoidance and numbing may work in the short-term, this energy builds in our system and eventually leads to excruciating symptoms. I invite you to learn about the ACE study, which examines the association between Adverse Childhood Experiences and negative outcomes such as PTSD, depression, anxiety, suicide, obesity, cancer, diabetes, substance abuse/dependence etc. You can take the ACE quiz and learn more about it here: ACE Quiz and additional learning.
In severe cases of inescapable trauma, the body may dissociate from what's occurring to help you get through the experience. In many cases, the dissociation continues any time something resembles the original experience (i.e. being triggered). It's important to repeat, your body will likely do this even when the threat is merely perceived. In other words, your body feels unsafe when you're actually safe. Although this may feel scary, it's your body's magnificent, natural defense. It's telling you something needs your attention. Learning to understand, listen to and attend to these cues are important steps toward healing. Embodiment practices assist in retraining your body to stay connected to the present moment versus shutting down or avoiding it.
Important note: All human beings experience dissociation and this occurs on a spectrum. Mild examples of dissociation include daydreaming, becoming immersed in a movie or thinking about work while being intimate with your partner. Acute dissociation is when your body goes into protection mode to help you endure trauma. This may develop into a dissociative disorder. Although dissociative disorders are adaptive and protective, they can create problems. Seeking help from a trained mental health professional is recommended to treat dissociative disorders. If you'd like to learn more about dissociation, DID Research and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation are fantastic resources.
How can embodiment support your healing?
Increase your capacity to tolerate distress so distress signals can be used as a guide.
Develop your ability to distinguish a real threat from a perceived threat.
Increase your ability to remain present and actively engaged in life.
Learn to trust and accurately respond to your body cues.
Befriend your magnificent human body to create vibrance and joy in your life.
Embodiment practice tips:
We slowly lose connection to our innate ability to experience embodiment as we age and go through life. This connection is not lost, but it does require conscious practice to nurture the reemergence of this powerful, grounding tool.
The best time to practice embodiment is when you're calm. This is when your brain is most receptive to new learning. When you're in distress, your brain is overwhelmed, making it exceptionally difficult to learn. If you only try to access embodiment skills when you're in distress, it may feel like you're trying to tame a wild horse. Again, it's imperative to practice embodiment when you're calm because this is when your brain is receptive to new information. Essentially, you are retraining your brain and this cannot occur when you're in distress. Practicing embodiment when you're calm will make it easier to access when you are in distress.
Repetition is the key to skill building. It's common to hear clients say, "I've tried breathing exercises and they don't work for me", or "I've tried meditation and it doesn't work for me". When I ask them how many times they've practiced, they generally say once or a handful of times. As humans we learn new skills through repetition. However, somewhere in the land of adolescence or adulthood, many of us learned we need to master something immediately or we shouldn't do it at all. This is a pervasive social myth that keeps many people from growth, learning, healing and developing new skills, passions and hobbies. When we were young toddlers learning to walk, our brain wasn't developed enough to judge or feel embarrassed each time we fell. When we fell, we simply got up and tried again. Eventually walking became second nature. This is true for embodiment practices or any skill we're learning. Wouldn't it be absurd to expect ourselves to know how to play the piano with expertise after only practicing a handful of times!
Explore and discover what works for you. The main goal is to use your senses to explore and experience what's occurring in the present moment. This practice may lead to pure enjoyment or an excruciating insight. One experience isn't more meaningful than the next. Each experience matters. Mindfulness meditation isn't superior to journaling. Hiking in nature is equally as meaningful as consciously playing with your children while noticing your experiences and sensations. It's easy to judge one form of embodiment as being better than the next, but this is also a myth. The best form of embodiment practice is what works for you!
The present moment is fertile ground for healing. Each time you practice embodiment you can imagine you’re planting seeds, watering, enriching the soil and soaking in the sunshine...all in preparation for your bloom. Below are some practice guidelines and examples of embodiment exercises:
Remember, you can't do this wrong. No matter what happens during your practice, you can’t do it wrong. Practicing builds skill. Skill building increases confidence. Increased confidence promotes further growth, learning and healing.
Experiment with what works for you. Allow yourself to try new things and to try them multiple times. Some days you may simply be more receptive than others. Allowing for flexibility, curiosity and humor are important learning ingredients.
Use your senses to connect to the present moment. Whether you choose to use your sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing or all of the above, allow your senses to connect you to the here-and-now. Each time your mind wanders, notice this, then bring your attention back to your senses.
Be curious about your thoughts. As your mind wanders, allow yourself to note what arose and determine if further exploration of this thought would be beneficial. If so, make time to process this further. Allow curiosity versus judgement to guide you.
Notice your body sensations. As you practice, notice your body sensations and attend to them. If you have the chills, what do you need to do to get warm? If you notice a comfortable, safe feeling in your belly, what contributed to this? If you're afraid and shaky, use your senses to detect if there's a real threat or if the past is trying to join you in the present moment (e.g. feeling embarrassed or ashamed despite being the only person in the room or despite others encouraging you. Practice telling your body it's ok to feel safe when you are safe. This takes time, so be patient.)
If you have time to worry, you have time to practice. Although it can be enriching and powerful to create an embodiment practice routine, it isn't necessary to have a structured practice. Sometimes I encourage my clients to engage in an embodiment exercise anytime they notice they’re worrying. Most commonly the worry is about the past or the future and rarely about the present moment. If the present moment is distressing, practicing during this time can help you feel more grounded and capable of navigating the distress.
I am providing a brief list of potential embodiment exercises and some links for additional learning. Please know there are endless possibilities when it comes to embodiment practices. Make time to discover what works for you. The more connected you feel to the present moment, the better prepared you'll be to process trauma, shame and other distressing topics. Embodiment prepares you for the deeper dive. It helps you remember your body is a healing tool that can be used for self-soothing and gaining insight. The more you practice, the more you will trust this.
Search the web for additional resources. There are many!
Bodywork: Practice embodiment while receiving bodywork. Examples of bodywork include: Acupuncture and Acupressure, Cupping, Craniosacral Therapy, Float Therapy, Kinetic Body Therapy, Massage, Myofascial Release, Polarity Therapy, Reiki, Rolfing, Trigger Point Therapy.
Embodied Movement: Any form of movement you enjoy while incorporating embodiment practices. Examples: Walking, hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, dancing, tai chi, martial arts, sports, stretching, singing, gardening etc.
Embodied Play: Any form of play while incorporating embodiment practices. This can be fun to engage in with children. Allow yourself to enter the child's world and enjoy!
Embodied Intimacy: This involves practicing embodiment in tandem with intimacy. This practice can bring unexpected energy and emotions to the surface. If it's triggering, you may want to consider the guidance of a sex therapist or immerse yourself in tantra education/workshops for safe exploration.
You deserve to feel, heal and live life with zeal!
Embodiment is a lifelong practice. It's called a practice because it takes time, effort, patience, self-care, humor and humility to truly learn from it. Step into the arena of life and learn to trust your body and your present moment while giving yourself grace and learning from all experiences.
If you need additional guidance to understand, practice or move through blockages to embodiment, POW Therapy can support you.