What does feeling embodied feel like?
May 25, 2018 11:37 PM   Subscribe

Bessel van der Kolk's work suggests that trauma can result in lacking a sense of embodiment, of being detached from a sense of vitality, as though there's "no body." Please help me understand what it feels like, subjectively, to be embodied.

Reading van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score has made me realize that what I experience physically may be somewhat numbed on a day-to-day basis. I can feel shame in my body, but pleasure, relaxation--heck, even the fabled good feeling while nursing a baby--none of that is present for me as a sensation. The closest I get is exhausting myself with working outside in the sun and wind. But I'm...not all there? Not embodied. It may be maladaptive, but I can ignore a lot of pain, even to the point of denying to myself that yes, that really is a migraine.

A couple of years ago, I got a hot stone massage and a pedicure, and I felt AMAZING all day, just vibrating with a sense of aliveness. I know it's possible, even if I cannot recapture that feeling in my bodily memory.

What, specifically, does it mean to feel at ease in, and aware of, your body? What does that feel like? Please explain this to me like I have no body.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Books by Thich Nhat Hanh are full of anecdotes and suggestions intended to evoke small things people tend not to focus on and help them regain the sense of being embodied: eating a tangerine, breathing in and out, washing the dishes, etc.--kinds of things you may have paid more attention to that day you had that sense of aliveness? Try The Sun My Heart, Peace is Every Step, or The Miracle of Mindfulness. That said, I'm certain his reminders aren't useful to everyone, and the two points in your question where you mention physical experiences as gateways to a sense of embodiment make me wonder if that's really going to work better for you than a description in words. Another easy read that comes to mind is The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, but I think it's even farther removed from the practical experience.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:11 AM on May 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Kundalini Yoga.

I'm going to come back to this thread because there are SO many options that include exercise, breathing, and meditation. But if I forget to come back, that is the best model I have used to address these issues.
posted by jbenben at 1:41 AM on May 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Are you hypervigilent? I've found I am way more able to feel fully relaxed and present physically when I'm somewhere I feel safe like out in the jungle away from people, in certain places with doors locked.

Also nursing is definitely not 100% wonderful for everyone. I nursed for 2 plus years and it was meh, not unpleasant or pleasant, fantastic for getting the kid healthy and happy, but I definitely did not get any blissful nursing high. Two other moms I know mentioned that they didn't enjoy nursing much either.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 2:25 AM on May 26, 2018

For me it is a sense of quiet awareness of my body, an ability to immediately reach for and get feedback from any part of my body (the gentle tickle from the raised markers on my keyboard, a faint nausea below my breastbone, the roped texture of my slippers). It is also a regular sense of being a part of the world, not separate from it. And sometimes it swells into that enormous feeling of vibrating aliveness you describe.

I too experienced trauma and had to rebuild (and continue to rebuild) a sense of embodiment. Without it, I felt cut off from the world and myself. The most important thing I realized during this process is that I am my body. I wasn't cut off from my body, I was cut off from the part of myself that experienced and interacted with the rest of the world.

Getting back inside my body, being my body, connects me to other people and the trees and the horrible ergonomics of my work chair. It makes me more aware of nice things and uncomfortable things. Being aware of uncomfortable things helps me decide what to do about them and prevents crises in my life because I notice them early enough to do something about them. Like I decide to work from home or take meds if I notice the subtle early migraine signs in the morning. Being aware of nice things lets me sit with and enjoy them - and seek them out!

I also feel my emotions more intensely because so much of emotion is a bodily experience - butterflies in the stomach, a twisting gut, a falling heart, a spring in my step. I found this quite confusing for awhile - sometimes I would get bodily sensations confused with emotions.

That conscious confusion was/is a good sign. The confusion still happened before I became more in touch with my body, but at a level I didn't notice. Like drinking too much coffee would make my heart race and then I would feel anxious. But I wouldn't notice my racing heart. I wouldn't even be aware I was becoming more and more anxious. I would just become snippy or tired or even more disconnected from my colleagues. I might think "Oh, I'm so stressed about work". Then I would think about all the stressful things about work and become more anxious!

Now I notice my heart racing and I think "am I scared? am I anxious? is something bad happening? did I just drink too much coffee?" and then I address whatever is going on.

It feels like I'm in the world and part of it, not seeing it through gauzy curtains.

Yoga (alone in my apartment, from a book) really really helped kickstart this process for me and though I don't have a regular practice any more, I still go back to it when I feel myself pulling away from my body/self. Meditation, especially body scans, also helps me. The book You are Not Your Pain also really helped. The book felt a little hokey to me, but the exercises were very good - they're designed for people who dissociate themselves from their bodies as a way to deal with physical pain and so directly address the problem.
posted by congen at 7:21 AM on May 26, 2018 [19 favorites]

So, there is so much to say on this topic but it is hard to describe. I think of myself as pretty in my body these days, but it certainly wasn't always like that

First, a little about me and trauma: a big part of my childhood was regulated based on what my primary abuser felt i was to affirm to him. I was fed when he was hungry, i was to like his foods and i was to express what he wanted me to feel regardless of what was really going on. So for me lots of body signals got muted, and i spent more time focusing on interpreting his signals and expressing those rules instead.

To me body is really three parts: emotional experience (what i feel in the moment, am I happy or sad or scared or content or etc or some mixture). Body signals and preferences(hungry, tired, comfortable, hot, cold, pain, etc AND what tastes good, what clothes feel comfortable, what kind of touch I like etc) and my actual body (how much space I take up, musle tension, injuries, movement, perception of self like recognizing myself in the mirror or pictures, and body language).

Depending on you, you may be better at or be able to tolerate one subset better than the others.

For me yoga was intolerable for a really really long time.

Even though I've experienced both, describing the experience is hard, our language doesn't have words for this.

To work on in body experience, I ended up using tons of different approaches... Keeping a notebook of preferences (do I actually like this food or TV show, book, clothes whatever). Checking in emotionally and using those emotion sheets to help. (I had really delayed emotional reactions as well, getting them in the moment took years of work) for in body work figure out to listen to singals of hunger and pain and tired. Some of this was just respecting myself and keeping to a reasonable routine, because I use to just move until I collasped. If that happened I'd look back and try not to do that thing in that way again.

Ultimately the pervasiveness of this type disconnection can be corrected, but it's a slow process sometimes with little euphoric bumps (like the massage!). It's about persistance and listing and really respecting yourself with no judgement (which is hard!).

I'm available via pm. These issues aren't super common and are very hard to chat about.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:32 AM on May 26, 2018 [12 favorites]

weirdly, the thing that has given me the greatest sensation of what (I think) you're describing has been running.

I hated and avoided running all my life because I was bad at it, etc. Then recently I started pushing myself to do it (generally before dawn, when it is cold, dark, and nobody else is out yet.) The solitude and dark eliminate most of the stressors (other people, cars, dogs etc) so it's just me and my body. The great part is after pushing through the first "ugh this sucks I'm tired" bit. Then I can feel - or imagine I feel - my lungs and heart working hard to keep everything going, and the pistons of the muscles working like they're supposed to, and the effort of the run is offset by the pleasure of the cold air on my skin and in my lungs, and my anxious brain shuts up for a while (this part is key. Generally my terrible brain won't shut up even for a massage.)

Anyway, it came as a huge surprise to me that running could be physically rewarding in this way even though it was (still is) hard. Maybe it might work for you too.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:59 AM on May 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I once knew a child with this diagnosis who never zipped her coat even when it was very cold, and she’d put on her coat automatically even when it was obviously warm enough not to need one. She never seemed to know if she was hungry or thirsty. Dancing helped her.
posted by Riverine at 8:07 AM on May 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Meditation: a common technique is to start by breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, and then after focusing on the breath for a bit, focusing on the sensations of your body. Check in with where your feet touch the floor, your arms touch the chair, etc. Headspace is an app with guided meditations, they are great and it comes with a free trial.

Touch yourself and others (where appropriate): I try to get and give hugs from my partner and close friends as much as I can. I touch my partner a lot, when he is talking about his day, I rub his shoulders or his back, or run my fingers through his hair. I hug my close friends and touch them on the shoulder of it is appropriate, etc. This is obviously tricky as not everybody wants to be touched. I only do this with my very close people, but it makes a big difference, because they reciprocate and it makes me feel very HERE.

Also when I am feeling very disconnected or anxious, particularly in the middle of the night, I rub my stomach in large, slow circles, and count them off. I try to do 50, or 100. It is very centering.

Yoga, too, is amazing. Once I had a yoga teacher tell the class to focus on the spinning of the earth, and how the gravity was pressing our bodies into the floor. Very perspective changing and grounding.

Finally... dance class! I go to a local dance class 1x a week and it is fun and extremely enjoyable. The endorphin rush paired with the music paired with the focus on trying to get the steps right is pinnacle I love my body stuff.

And it is cheesy but sometimes I just give myself a hug when I need it.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:08 AM on May 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

The lack of sense of embodiment is like a blind spot, a thing you can't perceive. This is a really hard question to answer because it is a little like a blind person asking someone to explain colors, though there is a great movie scene where someone tries to answer that exact question with hot and cold rocks rather than words.

Over the years, I have found that what a lot of people meant with their words was not what I was hearing. Particularly pertinent to this question, I was sexually abused as a child and I found that while talking to men online during my divorce, they would use expressions that sounded to me like a desire to hurt me physically when that wasn't what they meant. It took some time to get a sense of what they really meant because I was interpreting their words through the lens of prior negative experience.

Perhaps good answers will include descriptions of activities that can potentially help you feel what other people have experienced and are trying to describe.

Having said that:

Embodiment feels weighty in a positive way. My body has mass. It anchors me so I don't feel like I will float away or like I am not real.

For me, breathing and awareness of my voice in both a literal and figurative (identity) sense are very big pieces of it. My impression is this is not unique to me. Some very important traditions include breathing exercises. "Finding your voice" is a common expression for learning to express your own unique subjective point of view properly.

For me, getting my body back was sometimes painful. In therapy in my twenties, I was left doubled over in pain and struggling to walk as physical memories of trauma apparently came back very suddenly. My therapist offered to call an ambulance and, when I said no, he insisted on following me home in his car to make sure I got home safely. But not long after that, I stopped being frigid, so no regrets in regaining connection to my pelvis.

I was in therapy on another continent before I felt safe enough to remember repressed memories and feel my feelings. I think arranging a safe life and safe environment is an important prerequisite for reclaiming yourself.

People with dysphoria seem to live very much in their head. They are overly analytical in an unhealthy way and ungrounded. Their analysis is often a case of "garbage in, garbage out." They run the numbers, so to speak, but it's the wrong formula. It doesn't really apply. It is disconnected from reality.

For me, two other pieces preceded being embodied:

1. Seeing myself through my own eyes (instead of through the objectifying eyes of abusive people).
2. Learning to feel my feelings.

For seeing myself, a series of nude self portraits was an important step that left me in relieved tears.

For a long time, anger was my most accessible emotion. In my twenties, I spent a couple of years watching tear jerk movies late at night after the kids were asleep and wailing like a banshee. After that, I stopped being sad all the time. The constant black cloud over my head left.

If you live with that black cloud muting your perception, it can be impossible to imagine it being gone. It can be impossible to relate to other people talking about more positive experiences of life. Then one day it changes and things you heard previously and couldn't accept finally start to click.

I was in my forties when I got a serious education in making an emotional connection with a romantic partner. I didn't realize how dead that part of me was until someone breathed life into me.

I don't really have a means to describe that. I had no idea I was missing anything. Before that, I understood men as being only interested in what I looked like. There is enough societal enforcement of the idea that a woman's looks are everything that I thought I was seeing the whole picture. I had no idea some piece of it was missing. The rest of the world appeared to agree with my perception of such things.

You could not have explained to me that I was missing anything. I would have argued with you that I was right, in part because I grew up in an environment that valued intelligence in an unhealthy way as well. I would have felt like you were just putting me down and calling me stupid. I needed to experience it to see that I had been missing anything. Just talking about it wouldn't have done the job.

Reclaiming myself changed my dreamscape. It changed the waking landscape of my mind as well. These became more vivid, kind of like going from an old black and white movie to full color, so to speak.

I enjoyed the movie Pleasantville as a metaphor for this kind of thing, this kind of awakening process.
posted by DoreenMichele at 8:29 AM on May 26, 2018 [9 favorites]

I feel most at ease with my body when I'm doing something requiring skill to turn out just so: playing the piano, shooting basketballs, singing. You've practiced enough that you know exactly what to do with your body to get the result you want, and so you don't have to think or struggle with it-- you know the instant the ball leaves your hand that it's going in the basket, or you hear that the sound you're creating is right. Then you get into a sort of flow state where mind and body are one. As you practice, you make adjustments and you see what effects these have: bend your knees a little more, hold your arms this way, use this finger instead, etc. And that knowledge builds my sense of ease with my body and my sense of what it can do and how I can use it to affect my physical environment.
posted by emeiji at 12:14 PM on May 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am like you. I am often baffled by someone's ability to relax and enjoy something. Yoga is the only thing that has helped. Teachers I trust, a surrender to trying what their voices request of me. It's the only time I can get the world to fade and my self to take center. Seek out good teachers, spaces that speak to you. I swear there is release there.
posted by donnagirl at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2018

Hello there, OP!

Like others, I feel like I went on a journey to becoming embodied.

Once upon a time, it felt like I was my intellect, and my body was more of a vehicle housing my brain. Like Krang on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Or maybe that my body was just a car driving my brain around. A car that I had to put gas in to power, one that I could spiff up or beat up, one that I could coax to drive faster, one that would break down if I didn't care for it properly. I was a very accomplished track & field athlete and I kind of relished the challenge of spiffing up my car and coaxing it to go faster. But I wasn't, really, living in my body.

I agree with congen - for me, there was a moment where I realized that I *was* my body.

You had moments feeling embodied exhausting yourself in the wind + sun, and the day you got a hot stone massage and pedicure. My recommendation is to start here: playing with brightness/darkness, temperature changes, and pressure are all really helpful! I needed to do this before I could manage the stillness of meditation.

+Pressure: Massages are great. I used to throw myself in the hard surf of the ocean to help feel my body. Consider purchasing a weighted blanket, if you have some disposable income. Ask a trusted friend to *squeeze* you. I'm not joking. Not a massage. Squeeze your arms, squeeze your legs, squeeze your whole body. Hard. Have them hum into your spine or your shoulder or your chest. You have a body. Close your eyes.

+Temperature: you can do hot sauna / cold tub dip if a spa is an option, but this can also be changing the temperature of water running over your hands in the bathroom sink. Close your eyes and hold an ice cube.

+There is a reason that exhausting yourself in the sun/wind felt different, special. There's magic to be found when you are challenging your body so much that there is, in fact, no space to focus on anything BUT your physical sensations. Challenge yourself. I find that it's easiest to push myself in this way in a more structured environment (a class, or with other people there). This is an all experiment and the goal in this case is to push yourself to a different place - it could be a local 5K or climbing a very steep trail or chasing after the 5-year-old who lives next door, the goal is to dig deep and breathe hard. Give it a go.

Here are some things you can do with a trusted friend, to help connect your body to others' bodies.

+Mirroring: Just like it sounds. Face each other. First, your friend leads. Copy their movement, exactly, as if you were their mirror. Their left hand goes up; your right hand goes up. After a few minutes, switch. A few minutes more, don't name a leader. Keep going. You have a body, and it interacts with others' bodies.

+Ohming: Oh man, I'm a person that gets all cynical around new-age stuff, but I like this one. Ohm. Or sing. With a friend, with many friends. You have a body, it makes noise, it interacts with others' noises. Make a sound, have your friend make the same sound. Switch. Feel how the sounds layer, when everyone is making the same sound, at the same time.

Taking a physical theatre class changed my life. You might like something like this too. Or try some of the exercises (start by walking around the room):
+Walk forwards; walk backwards. Fill the space. Your body is a brush, painting the space. Fill it.
+Now, play with levels. Go high. Crawl, low. Keep going forwards, backwards. Vary your pace. Keep filling the space.
+Now, play with tension. Every part of your body is tense, every muscle is flexed. Now...relax. You're in honey. You're super suuuuper relaxed. Your face is relaxed. Your head droops, your shoulders cave it. You're a puddle. Lie on the floor.
+Now, play with speeds. Walk slowly. Now quickly. Think about 1-10, where 1 is slow, relaxed, and 10 is the fastest, most jittery you. Give us a 4! Now a 9! Now a twoooooooo.

One of the best things about this class was the idea of having a body to have a body - it wasn't to have it look a certain way, or to please a certain audience. It was about authentically expressing the full rainbow of things that humans feel. One of the first things my teacher said to me was, "Well, I see you being sweet and playful. But I want to see you be grotesque." That changed things for me. You have a body. It is beautiful and terrible, it is strong and weak, it is all the things. You might know what a happy face looks like vs. a sad face. But what does a happy body vs. a sad body look like? Sadness has a shape. The next time you feel sad, try to make the shape of sadness with your body.

You can do these things alone, in your own private space, as an experiment. You can invite a friend. And you can also start, little by little, noticing these things in your every day life. There are times when it feels like moving through molasses, and times when you're flitting around. Start taking a few tiny moments and just...paying attention.

Agree with others that meditation could be very useful for you. Yoga, too. Body scans are wonderful for this. Get very quiet and very still. Notice the weight of your body. Your feet on the floor/legs in the chair, your hand on your belly as you breathe. Ask yourself how you feel, generally: "Do I feel restless or still? Am I hungry? Where, physically, do I feel my breath?" You can begin counting your breaths to let your mind rest on them. Then you can scan down your body, head to toes, and pause to notice each body part. Is it tense, or relaxed? Any pain? Nthing Headspace as a lovely guide for this!

Starting to notice your body, and then truly living in your body, is a practice, like anything else. It's something you can learn.

I love this stuff and am also available by PM if it's helpful. Wishing you all the best on your journey to embodiment. There is magic to be found and I will be thinking of you! <3
posted by red_rabbit at 3:39 PM on May 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

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