Embodiment: How to Create More Possibilities with Positive Psychology

Embodiment and positive psychology go hand in hand -- how can you use your senses to be a better coach? How can you help your clients with embodiment?

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The Science of Embodiment

“We are bound to our bodies like an oyster is to its shell” - Plato

Current research in positive psychology has been derived from two general perspectives. According to the work of Dr. Kate Hefferon, PhD, these are defined as:

  • HEDONIC: well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance 
  • EUDAIMONIC: focused on meaning and self-realization, and the degree to which a person is fully functioning

The way we relate to our bodies is one of the foundations of eudaimonic happiness. This includes: 

  • How we treat it
  • How we move it
  • How we sooth it
  • How we feed it
  • How we dress it 
  • How we decorate it
  • How we connect to items 

Our bodily experiences also have a real influence on our perceptions and judgments of a situation!

Body awareness focuses on a person’s ability to correctly and confidently identify and engage with body sensations as well as link these to emotions. Research has demonstrated a positive relationship between body awareness and well being.

On the flip side, dis-embodiment involves indifference towards the body, or an increasingly negative relationship with the body. 

So how can “dis-embodiment” show up in our lives, and why is it a problem? A few examples of its impact include: 

  • negative body image
  • eating disorders across genders
  • elective aesthetic procedures
  • self harming
  • disappearing: a phenomenon in which we do not connect with our bodies or others in the real world
“The brain is not the sole cognitive resource we have available to solve problems...our bodies and their perceptually guided motions through the world do much of the work required to achieve our goals, replacing the need for complex internal mental representations.” (Wilson & Golonka, 2013, p. 1)

So how do we come into a healthy and supportive relationship with the body? One positive psychology based intervention is to learn how to ‘make friends’ with our somatic sensations, using them as a gauge to enhance our functioning and overall well being.

Becoming Friends With The Body

What do we need to know to start working intentionally with our bodies as a way to achieve well being? Again, Hefferon’s work in this area offers us practical guidance.

1. Touch 

Our sense of touch is the first way we learn to communicate. It begins at birth, and is arguably the sense that has the biggest impact on our well being. The physical impact of touch is profound. Positive touch reduces distress (cortisol levels and blood pressure) while increasing serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. 

2. Social Interactions

Evaluate the quality of your social interactions as another practical way to practice embodiment. A synchrony between bodies can create a sense of “oneness” and compassion.

What you’re aiming for here is behavioral synchrony: the coordination that occurs between individuals during social interaction. This can include similarity of manner, style and temporal rhythm. 

3. Love & Connection

In a neurobiological sense, love is defined as a moment of micro-connection between two people, or between a person and their pet. (Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0) This “love connection” happens in the space between you. It’s where you are agreeing - consciously or not - to give each other mutual care. 

​​Micro-connections that deliver love can be as simple as smiling at the person that’s jogging by while you’re sitting on the park bench. It might be saying “have a great day” and making eye contact with the person who just poured your coffee. Or even just a friendly nod to someone on the subway, rather than remaining heads-down, immersed in our phones.

​​When we have these brief exchanges of micro-connection, it stimulates cardiovascular healing. In this way, love actually repairs the heart. Those positive emotions help to counterbalance the damage inflicted by past experiences of negativity, fear, scarcity or pain.

4. Positivity Resonance 

Positive resonance simply means sharing positive emotions and/or behaviors. This brings mutual motive care to invest in each other's wellbeing.  Your BODY and another BODY is imperative for the connection. *This is not love with a capital "L". (Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0)

5. Body-based Interventions

The body itself can be used as a tool for healing and well-being. Hefferon’s research demonstrates that body-based interventions can enhance body awareness and help people find better ways to “live in their body.” 

Body-based interventions include:

Dance Movement therapy (DMT)  Movement and emotions are linked. People express their emotions and thoughts through dance where the instructor must then help interpret the. Example: DMT used as an adjunct to cancer care reconnecting the patients to their bodies after invasive treatment.

Physical activity Reduces the risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Improves positive emotions, self esteem, body image, cognitive functioning, psychological well being, posttraumatic growth, flow, purpose in life, etc. Physical activity also builds psychological and emotional strength through the building of physical strength.

Yoga Promotes engagement with body sensations and awareness. Yoga interventions can increase: positive mood, energy, satisfaction, confidence, mindfulness, self-compassion, enhanced sleep quality, well being, embodiment, and overall quality of life. Yoga also decreases stress and symptoms of anxiety, anger, and clinical depression.

6. Mindfulness body scans

A simple practice to come into present moment awareness, a body scan is exactly what it sounds like! You can perform it sitting, standing, or lying down. For instructions on how to do a body scan along with a guided meditation practice, check out:

7. Self Talk 

According to the research of Dr. Kristen Neff, compassionate self talk is associated with more stable feelings of self worth than self-esteem. The benefits of a self-compassion practice include:

  • calming
  • emotional intelligence
  • less ruminations about the past
  • resilience
  • confidence and ability to change
  • lower risk of chronic disease
  • higher productivity

Fact is that humans don’t have the ability to suppress negative emotions – we can not "will them away." And so many of our negative emotions stem from the thoughts we ourselves are thinking. If we try to suppress them they turn up elsewhere, like physical pain.

When we are engaged in critical self talk, it can be useful to call upon self-compassion practices. Two simple approaches to shifting the inner dialogue from criticism to caring include:

From Kristen Neff:

  • This is a moment of suffering
  • Suffering is a natural part of life
  • I may be kind to myself in this moment
  • I may give myself the compassion I need

From Marshall Rosenberg:

  • What am I observing
  • What am I feeling
  • What do I need right now?
  • What request would I like to make?

Bringing it Together - Embodied Experience

Positive emotions along with positive embodiment prepare you for growth by broadening your mindset. And according to Barbera Fredrickson, different positive experiences will give you different positive emotional outcomes!

  • Frequently experiencing joy will drive a human to acquire better and more diverse skills 
  • Gratitude strengthens social bonds and skills for loving.
  • Serenity allows you to modify your self-perception and view of the world.
  • Interest/engagement triggers a desire to explore and you gain knowledge and energy.
  • Hope brings increased resilience.
  • Pride unlocks motivation for achievement.
  • Amusement builds friendship and creativity.
  • Inspiration from excellence increases skill and feelings of morality.
  • Awe allows us to see ourselves as part of a larger whole.
  • Love - impacts all of the above 

Bottom line? 

The more moments that we have of a broadened mindset the more we fundamentally change who we are and become better versions of ourselves. Think of positive experiences like nutrients: we need lots of them in order to derive the health benefits. (In other words, eating one vegetable per week is not going to cut it!)  To get the full “nutritional impact”, you need to let the positive emotion sink all the way in. 

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