Embodiment is a capacity that supports a healthy relationship with our bodies. It emphasizes the importance of observing and noticing one’s internal felt sense. Embodied practices help increase the connections between exteroception (external sensations) and interoception (the internal felt sense). Restorative embodiment focuses on the senses as a resource to support and reinforce soothing, invigorating, and recuperative experiences.
Embodiment is a term that is ubiquitous in the field of mental health. Its most basic definition refers to a tangible or visible form of an idea, quality, or feeling. It is the personification, incarnation, or manifestation of a way of being or characteristic, such as “she is the embodiment of hope” or “their musical performance embodied joy and exuberance.”
In contemporary psychotherapy, the term embodiment has taken on a slightly different meaning. Many therapists are now familiar with the idea that the “body keeps the score” (van der Kolk, 1994; 2014). “Our issues are in our tissues” (author unknown) is another phrase often used by somatic educators and body-based practitioners (yoga, massage, and others) to describe the importance of physical awareness.
These ideas influenced the definition of embodiment and what has become known as embodied practices, particularly within the field of traumatic stress. These practices underscore the importance of observing and noticing one’s internal felt sense. Embodiment implies that the central focus for emotional repair, transformation, and recovery is through becoming aware of our physical being through the senses. It is a way to include the body as a focus for health and well-being through self-appreciation and self-acceptance of what we physically sense and feel in the moment (Malchiodi, 2020).
This perspective also proposes that embodiment is not just a one-time event but is an ongoing practice of establishing a relationship with one’s body. It involves various mind-body awareness approaches (see Somatic Experiencing or the fields of expressive arts therapy or dance/movement, for example) to sustain attention to how one’s body responds and feels in the present moment.
Body-based awareness is a form of “somatic intelligence” that increases an individual’s understanding of the connections between exteroception (external sensations) and interoception (the internal felt sense).
trauma and the disembodied self
Focusing on the body’s internal sensations is distressful for many trauma survivors, particularly those who have experienced interpersonal violence or complex trauma, or posttraumatic stress. They often experience a disconnection between external sensations and their internal felt sense. This is particularly true in dissociation related to posttraumatic stress. For this reason, introducing embodied practice to individuals with traumatic stress can be complicated.
When trauma is particularly severe or chronic, individuals report being “ungrounded,” unable to identify emotions, and disconnected from others. The overpowering sensations of traumatic stress result in feeling unsafe in one’s own body and a lack of self-agency and boundaries to prevent further trauma. Individuals report feeling too much (overwhelmed and activated) or too little (numb, withdrawn, or lethargic), body-mind states that make a somatic focus difficult and often uncomfortable. Embodied moments can also evoke emotional states such as shame, guilt, or grief, making body awareness challenging.
These experiences reflect a “disembodied self.” Many individuals with traumatic stress observe how quickly they can become disembodied when they attempt to focus on their body’s sensations. It takes on many forms, including an inability to focus, fidgeting or restlessness, intellectualizing, or pushing one’s physical limits, all strategies to distract oneself from uncomfortable sensations. For others, the experience of dissociation takes over to help individuals shift away from what is painful or emotionally excruciating.
These responses, once acknowledged, can become a starting point for gradual engagement in somatic awareness. Understanding that a tendency to disembody is a normal survival response when uncomfortable feelings arise is an important first step in embodiment, especially when it comes to traumatic stress. Once individuals begin to identify uncomfortable sensations that naturally result in withdrawal, avoidance, or activation, the process of introducing embodied moments becomes possible.
cultivating restorative embodiment
When working with individuals challenged or activated by embodied approaches, I try to help them learn about embodiment from a different perspective. My colleague Amber Elizabeth Gray, a dance/movement therapist, coined the phrase “right to embody.” Gray implies that we each have a right to inhabit our bodies with safety and self-agency and with joy, curiosity, and enlivenment.
When introducing the concept of embodiment, it is also essential to explain that somatic awareness is not just about the identification of distress. It is also about engaging our body’s capacity as a positive resource when distressed. I call this “restorative embodiment,” a somatic shift that helps us focus on what our bodies can experience to counteract activation and withdrawal.
In contrast to helping individuals increase tolerance for uncomfortable somatic sensations, restorative embodiment redirects attention to expanding capacity (see “Traumatic Stress and the Circle of Capacity”).
©2022 Cathy Malchiodi PhD
In contrast to other somatic therapies, restorative embodiment is what we centralize in expressive arts therapy. The core of expressive approaches is grounded in active participation in novel experiences that reacquaint individuals with curiosity, playfulness, efficacy, and pleasure (Malchiodi, 2022). In other words, embodiment is not only defined as the development of physical awareness but also as an expansion of the capacity to inhabit one’s body and mind in soothing, invigorating, and recuperative ways.
embodiment as a practice
Embodiment is a process of somatic self-discovery. It is also a practice that is enhanced through repetition, whether in the presence of a therapist or on one’s own, as a form of self-care. Embodied practices help one to reclaim capacities to recognize and release distress. Perhaps more importantly, embodiment introduces possibilities for restorative somatic awareness—the body’s ability to awaken and reclaim the felt sense of the positive experiences that make life worth living.
Malchiodi, C. A. (2020). Trauma and expressive arts therapy: Brain, body, and imagination in the healing process. New York: Guilford Publication.
Malchiodi, C. A. (2022). Handbook of expressive arts therapy. New York: Guilford Publications.
van der Kolk, B. (2014), The body keeps the score. New York: Penguin.
van der Kolk B. (1994). The body keeps the score: memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard review of psychiatry, 1(5), 253 – 265. https://doi.org/10.3109/10673229409017088
Originally published in Psychology Today Posted December 29, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster Image credit source: © 2021 from the collection of Cathy Malchiodi PhD
Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., is a psychologist, expressive arts therapist, trauma specialist, and author of 20 books, including Trauma and Expressive Arts Therapy: Brain, Body, and Imagination in the Healing Process.
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