Emotions and Embodiment: Body Awareness
Some of the most recent movements in the field of psychology have been focused on the connection between emotion and the body. This correlates with the discussions around trauma-informed care as researchers and clinicians have delved into the way trauma, emotions, and memories are stored in our bodies.Embodiment is the practice of “giving a body (to)” and synonyms include “incorporate” (Merriam-Webster, 2022). In a similar manner, body awareness is the practice of being aware of your body/physical sensations. Body awareness and embodiment are important facets of healing from trauma as well as being able to respond to daily life and the emotions that arise.
As Tara Owens, author of Embracing the Body, articulates, “like most Christians I was taught that almost all feelings are unreliable and not to be trusted…to feel is to be human. To minimize or deny what we feel is a distortion of what it means to be image-bearers of our personal God. To the degree that we are unable to express our emotions, we remain impaired in our ability to love God, others, and ourselves well” (Owens, 2015, p. 26).
As Christians, body awareness and embodiment are two of the many ways we can live out our “imago dei” being made in the image of God by stewarding and understanding how our bodies were created. Our bodies are not hindrances to our faith and our growth—They are integral parts of them!
Likewise, pastor and author Peter Scazzero affirms that “God intends that we mature in learning to recognize how he speaks and guides us through our feelings” (Scazzero, 2017). This article will define body awareness and provide some practical exercises for embodiment.
What is Body Awareness?
Body awareness is defined as “how conscious and connected you are to your own body. It’s also known as kinesthesia, or the awareness of the position and movement of body parts in relation to muscles and joints” (Hoshaw, 2021). Thus, embodying our emotions is facilitated by body awareness. When we are attuned to our physical states it provides a way for us to identify how our emotions are showing up and held in our physical bodies.
Owens explains this relationship between our faith and our body awareness by articulating that “God speaks to us through a knot in the stomach, muscle tension, trembling and shaking, the release of adrenaline into our bloodstream, headaches, and a suddenly elevated heart rate.
God may be screaming through our physical body while we look for (and prefer) a more “spiritual” signal. The reality is that often our bodies know our feelings before our minds” (Owens, 2015, p. 71).
Every emotion is felt through our physical bodies. Body awareness is crucial to being able to live embodied lives where we can respond and be attuned to our physical and emotional states.
Body Awareness and Embodiment
As we hone our body awareness, we are then able to engage in embodiment. This is the practice of listening to and incorporating into our experience what our bodies are communicating at the moment. Owens further explains that embodiment “starts with a willingness to not dismiss automatically any sensation or action as “just” physical” (Owens, 2015, p. 196).
Furthermore, “Mindfulness not only makes it possible to survey our internal landscape with compassion and curiosity but can also actively steer us in the right direction for self-care” (Van der Kolk, 2015). As we pay attention to our physical states, body awareness, and then attune to the emotions associated with those states, embodiment, we are able to grow and heal.
Embodiment Activities for Body Awareness
The following section provides several activity examples to facilitate body awareness and embodiment of emotions. This is in no way an exhaustive list, but a reference point to begin.
Five Senses Activity
For this body awareness exercise, it is important to know there are many variations of this (i.e., the order in which you focus on each sense), but each one includes focusing on your environment and a particular sense. For instance, when on a walk or sitting in a room, take several centering deep breaths. First name five things you can see in the room and focus on them for several seconds as you name them.
Then turn to four things you can touch. Reach out and touch them and focus on the textures. Next, focus on three things you can hear, taking several seconds to listen to each one. Following this with two things you can smell; do they remind you of anything? Lastly, name one thing you can taste, whether it’s a sip of a drink near you or the remnants of the last thing you consumed.
5, 6, 7 Breathing
This exercise involves focused breathing that can facilitate engagement of your sympathetic (calming) nervous system. First, you inhale for a moderate-paced count of five, hold your breath for a count of six, and then slowly exhale for a count of seven. Repeat three to four times.
There are numerous benefits to walking barefoot—from balance to body awareness (Lindberg, 2019). To enhance body awareness, simply walk barefoot around your home or outside (in a location free from things such as needles or other health hazards). To foster embodiment, as you walk pay particular attention to the emotions you are feeling. Do you feel secure, curious, or a bit afraid? What do the textures feel like on your feet?
This exercise is included in “Try Softer” by therapist Aundi Kolber, and it is centered on focusing your vision at different points in a single room. To begin, focus on a far point in the room such as an opposite wall, and pause for several seconds. Then, find the midpoint of the room (it may just be an open space) and pause and focus your eyes. Lastly, focus on one foot in front of you. Then relax your vision. (Kolber, 2020).
There are many guided body scan exercises, but the basic framework is: in a comfortable seated or standing position, begin to focus your attention on either your feet (bottom-up scan) or your head (top-down). Pause for several seconds on the focus body part- move it gently (e.g. wiggle your toes or roll your ankles) and pay attention to any pain or emotions that arise.
Proceed to the next body part pausing and reflecting until you reach the top/bottom. Tara Owens recommends praying as you do this, inviting the Holy Spirit to help you discern if a twinge of pain is “purely physical” or an expression of an embodied emotion. It can be helpful to pair this with journaling to facilitate processing/embodiment as you do the scan.
Emotion Mapping Art Activity
This one is similar to the body scan but involves mapping where you feel emotions held in your body. Materials needed include paper and multi-colored pens. First, draw a body (it does not have to be detailed, but having a face is helpful). Next, take a few deep breaths to center and ground yourself.
Then, think of an emotion and choose a color to represent it (e.g. red for anger, blue for sadness, etc.). Follow the body scan protocol and paint that color on the body part where you sense you are holding that emotion. This can be done for one emotion at a time or several. It often ends up looking like a thermal image.
Paying attention to our bodies as a means of growing in our faith and the many ways that God speaks to us. Body awareness is a process—one that takes time to grow. You can learn more about how your emotions relate to body awareness and embodiment by exploring some of the following resources, or by meeting with a qualified Christian counselor.
Try Softer, Aundi Kolber
Embracing the Body, Tara Owens
Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, Peter Scazzero
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van der Kolk
Embodiment Practices: How to Heal Through Movement (positivepsychology.com)
Hoshaw, C. (2021, February 26). Body Awareness: How to Deepen Your Connection with Your Body. Retrieved from Healthline.com: https://www.healthline.com/health/mind-body/body-awareness#what-is-it
Kolber, A. (2020). Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode–and into a Life of Connection and Joy. Tyndale Referesh.
Lindberg, S. (2019, March 8). Does Walking Barefoot Have Health Benefits. Retrieved from Healthline.com: https://www.healthline.com/health/walking-barefoot
Merriam-Webster. (2022, March 28). Embodied. Retrieved from Merriam: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embodied
Owens, T. (2015). Embracing the Body. IVP Books.
Scazzero, P. (2017). Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Zondervan.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin Publishing Group.
“Resting”, Courtesy of Motoki Tonn, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Soup on a Dreary Day”, Courtesy of Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hand in Water”, Courtesy of Ritvik Singh, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Free!”, Courtesy of Peter Conlan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License