Trigger Warning - This post talks about ways to experience sensations in the body that are generally safe. However, trauma does live in the body and everyone’s triggers are unique. If any of these suggestions are more triggering than helpful, be kind to yourself and move on to a different suggestion or skip this altogether.
Many of my co-collaborators come to me because they know I will get them in their bodies. Ever since Peter Levine and Bessel Vanderkolk wrote their important books Waking the Tiger and The Body Keeps the Score, the collective consciousness around how our bodies hold our trauma has been raised and challenged. We now know that the way to work through trauma requires more than just talking - we also need to be in our bodies and allow them to share and complete their stories.
The problem is, this is easier said than done - quite literally - it can feel much easier to talk around our trauma than to dive into the body’s experience and sit in those challenging embodied feeling sensations.
The traumatized body may hold such experiences as fear, terror, rage, shame, guilt, anger, annihilation, embedded sensations of physical or sexual abuse. These can show up in a myriad of ways - tightening in the chest, squeezing the throat, “punch” to the gut. The idea of accessing and releasing such body sensations can feel very daunting to say the least and, in fact, requires a lot of resources to do so safely.
As an Embodied Mindfulness mentor, I find it helpful to teach basic body awareness before diving into these more difficult embedded body experiences of trauma. I hope this list of fun and comfortable ways to experience your body are a helpful gateway to diving into the more difficult work of experiencing memory and emotion in your body. Your body wants to tell its story and, in allowing it to tell the story of its everyday needs, you open up space for the more involved bits of your historical story to surface more comfortably.
Before engaging in these little body sensation experiments, you first need to acquaint yourself with your own Curious Observer. It may be helpful to use an actual object to represent this observer or you can simply imagine the Observer sitting in a space in your mind and noticing what is going on in the body. This noticing happens with no shame, blame or judgement. Your Observer is the poster child for Curiosity! If you use an object to represent this observer, be sure to check in with it often.
You may consider these body functions as shameful or embarrassing. This is where the Curious Observer helps out - try to simply notice the body sensations by themselves and not worry so much about the emotions popping up along with them. Playing with noticing these sensations in private may help you to be more comfortable with them when around others. Always when playing with these sensations stay curious and be kind to yourself and your body!
Breathing - this is the most basic experience of life in a body - breathing! Breathe naturally and see if you can notice how your breath is moving in and out of your nostrils. Feel where the breath falls in your body - is it high in your throat? Your chest? Deep in your belly? Play with sending breath to different parts of your body - can you send it all the way to your toes? To your ears? Your elbows? Have fun sending little blessings of breath all around your body and use your
Curious Observer to notice how it feels to sense your breath moving through and enlivening your body. ***an important note about breathing and trauma - the Freeze state is very real and is the body’s reminder of a time when it felt in life-threatening danger. Being seen breathing by others or even noticing your own breath may trigger this freeze state - if breathing is hard for you to tolerate, skip to another body sensation. Come back to the breath only when you feel ready or when you are alone and know you will not be witnessed breathing.
Voiding - hey, it’s a body and part of its job is to take in food and get rid of what doesn’t serve it - may as well notice all those digestion signals and enjoy them! Use your Curious Observer to notice when you feel the need to void - is there clenching in the buttocks or groin? Discomfort in the bladder or intestines? How do you move when you're clenched or full or need to void? Notice if you move more quickly? More slowly? And here’s the fun part - really appreciate the feeling of letting go! Notice and enjoy the contrasts between full, emptying, and empty. See how long you can hold on to the pleasant sensations of feeling empty and relieved. Send a little breath of gratitude through your body for taking such good care of you.
Belching - there’s nothing like a robust, airy belch to move sensations through the body! In some cultures it’s even the polite way to express appreciation for a good meal. Notice how it feels in your belly, esophagus, throat as the burp moves its way up and out. Feel the flow of air and enjoy the sound and airiness as it erupts from your throat and mouth. What does it taste like? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? Then stay with the sensation of emptying and releasing that is left behind in your body for as long as you can.
Passing Gas - we’ve already hit on pooping and burping - you had to see this coming! Notice the build up in your body of gas. Give your body a little nod of appreciation for getting rid of what doesn’t serve it and knowing how to take care of you! Notice how it feels to release gas - is it a small, silent trickle or an explosive blatt? Do you shift your body position to help it along or hide it in polite company? Are you someplace where you can just let it go and enjoy the emptying and release of it? Notice all the sensations from the first awareness of the need to the end feeling of emptiness.
Chewing and Swallowing - if we can focus on our food coming back out - we can certainly pay attention to it when it’s going down too! Food is alive with opportunities to feel sensations in the body. Feel the texture of the food in your hands. Maybe you’re using a fork or spoon and rely on your nose to share about its taste before it gets to your mouth. What is happening in your body before you take a bite? Hunger pangs? Sugar cravings? Mouth salivating? Now notice how the food feels as it comes into your mouth, as you chew, as it goes down your esophagus. What is the texture on your tongue? Does it get stuck in your teeth? Is it chewy? Smooth? Hot or cold? Can you feel it go all the way down to your stomach? What if you take a drink of water or juice? How does that change the sensations?
Stretching - gift yourself with a gentle prolonged stretch into a body part that feels tight Notice the tightness before you stretch then try to stay with each sensation as you slowly stretch the tightness out. Send the stretched muscle some breath and appreciation. Feel the release in the muscle as you release the stretch. Take a moment to enjoy your body enjoying the stretch and release.
Tooth Brushing - pull out your observer along with your toothbrush and toothpaste. Notice how it feels to squeeze the toothpaste out of the tube, notice your fingers supporting the toothbrush. Get curious about how you move your toothbrush in your hand to get it ready to brush. Where in your mouth do you start brushing? The front teeth or do you go straight to the back teeth? Do you focus more on the front, tops or back of your teeth? What does it feel like on your gums? What does it taste like? How do your mouth, tongue and teeth feel before you begin to brush? After? Enjoy that minty clean sensation for as long as you can hold onto it.
Showering - so much love to be had for your body in the shower! Notice your body just before you step into the shower - are you cold? Hot and sweaty? What does it feel like for the first burst of water on your body? Notice how the drops of water feel. Play around with moving your body in and out of the stream and notice where the water falls on your body. Your hands are your heroes in the shower! Let them treat your body to the full spa experience. Feel the soap on your hands, play with the suds, notice how the water and the soap feel together on your skin. Use your hands to lather up your scalp with shampoo and turn your attention to your scalp. What does it feel like to have your hands massaging in the bubbles? What does it feel like for your hands? Your head? Your ears and face as the water and soap wash over them? I like to look at my hands when I’m done washing up and thank them for their loving care of my body! Don’t forget to keep the Observer awake as you step out of the shower and towel off too.
Dressing - Open up to your Curious Observer while you get dressed for the day. Do you like to get completely naked before getting dressed or do you take off one item of clothing before putting on a new one? What does it feel like to have your body exposed to the air? Do you sit down to get dressed or stand up? What parts of your body are touching a surface and what parts are involved in putting clothes on? How does it feel to have one sock on and one sock off? One pant leg on and one off? One arm in the sleeve and the other off? Feel the texture of each piece of clothing. Feel its tightness or looseness and how it sits on your body. Did you mess up your hair? How does it feel to have it be out of place? What does it feel like to brush it back into place? Once you are fully clothed, notice what the whole body feels like in clothes. See if you can recall what it felt like before you put your clothes on. Notice the difference in those two sensations.
Scratching - have an itch? Take a moment to kick in your Curious Observer and notice what it feels like under your skin. Notice if the urge to scratch is in one precise spot or is it moving around? What happens if you delay scratching? Does it grow more intense or decrease in intensity? Now how does it feel to scratch that itch? Are you using your fingernails? A scratching tool? Your partner? Does the itch move around as you scratch it? How does it feel when you’re done scratching? How long can you hold on to the sensation of relief from the itch? Does your body need a little more pampering? Maybe some lotion or soothing cream? Treat your body to a little extra self-care now that you’re paying attention!
Touching - (obvious trigger warning here!) - how often do you allow yourself to really enjoy your partner’s - or your own - touch? Is this hard for you? See if you can notice your hands on your partner’s skin or your partner’s hands on your skin. Find a way to touch and be touched that feels safe and comfortable. Good communication with your partner is important here. Notice where touch feels warm, spicy, sharp, pleasant, intense. Can you allow yourself to feel aroused and stay in that experience without judgment or shame? Can you stay present throughout intimate times? Notice your body before, during and after sex. Where do you feel sensations? Can you stay with the sensations throughout these stages of intimacy? Thank your body for those robust feelings of sensuality!
Hugging - the science on this is well-known. Hugging others - and even yourself! - puts those feel-good hormones in motion. Hug your partner or your children. Notice how your body feels just before being pulled into a hug. What do your hugger’s arms and hands feel like on your skin? What do your hands and arms feel? What parts of your body are touching? Can you honor any discomfort by shifting position until the hug feels safe and warm? You can hug yourself and feel your own hands on your arms, your arms wrapped across your chest - your brain doesn’t know the difference! Do you enjoy being squeezed tightly or would your body rather keep a bit more distance and less pressure?
Petting a Pet - this is a great way to experience your body as you interact with those who love to interact with you the most! Your pet might be furry or scaly, have short sharp hair or long tangly fur. Maybe your pet is a feathered friend. Notice as you pet your pal what it feels like on your hands. Does it involve more parts of your body? If your pet is in your lap or draped over your shoulders, what does that feel like on those parts of your body? Is it warm or cold? (My lizard can feel pretty chilly in the Winter!) Is your pet tense or relaxed? Are you tense or relaxed? Notice if your mood shifts while you are petting your pet - chances are it has shifted to a more pleasant state!
None of these exercises require any extra time - they simply require putting on your Curious Observer hat as you go about your daily routines. It is helpful to remind yourself to stop and put on that hat, and then to take an extra moment to really notice and connect to your body sensations. If you are doing the intense work of engaging with your trauma so you can move into post-traumatic growth this is a great weight-lifting exercise to develop the muscles needed for tolerating those much more difficult emotional memories that are also stored in your body. All of these exercises are anchored in the here and now experience of living in a body. The scary emotional memories are your body’s way of holding onto the past and resisting the present moment. Self-compassion tells us that first we need to attenuate the body to being observed with curiosity within the present moment. Once that skill is established, then and only then can we move into bringing those challenging memories into the present moment to be resourced by our new awareness of self.