A Queer Therapists Survival Guide to Embodied Emotional Wellness
Our wellbeing as humans is dependent on our ability to remain embodied.
We are disembodied now, more than ever. We spend time in our heads, in our devices, in our screens, and the body becomes an afterthought. Inhabiting the body is a necessary practice that we frequently must teach ourselves.
Many of us made it through the US school system, one way or another, without learning basic emotional education. Concepts like emotional regulation, mindfulness, and rest were have not been embedded into academic and social curriculum. We grew up and matured without fundamental education on how to care for ourselves, how to process and understand our experiences, and how to regulate our emotional experiences to remain embodied.
What does it mean to be Embodied?
In the simplest form, embodiment is the state of being in your body.
Here is my conceptualization of embodiment: Embodiment is the union of consciousness and the body. Embodiment happens in the present. It is an expansive and evolving process that changes moment to moment as we experience our self in relationship to our body and its environment.
To understand this concept, it is important to know how the body processes information.
Inputs: The body is taking information from our hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch, movement and balance. These inputs interact with our thoughts, our perceptions, our memories and prior experiences, and whether our brain identifies threat or danger.
Outputs: If our brain processes sensory information and decides that something is unsafe, it will send conscious and unconscious signals in order to protect the system from perceived threat. These protective outputs can include pain, stress, inflammation, dissociation, and tiredness.
Image from Pain is Really Strange, by Steve Haines, art by Sophie Standing. More about Pain, Trauma, Touch, and Anxiety can be found at Body College.
We can start to practice embodiment by bringing our attention to our body in the present moment. Learning to befriend and be curious with our body and its experience is a joyous practice that boosts emotional wellbeing and vitality.
This queer therapists guide to embodied emotional wellness was created by Dani Sullivan, MSW, RCSWI, CEO & Founder of Intentions Therapy.
Embodied Emotional Wellness is made possible by these practices:
Resting without shame
Cultivating comfortable environments
Engaging personal voice, choice, and bodily autonomy
Accommodating individual needs and desires
Staying Present and Centered
Sharing with Community
The remainder of this article will break down each of these practices, discuss its connection to embodiment and offer support in getting started with your own embodiment practice.
Embodiment Practice #1 - Rest Without Shame
The Nap Ministry describes Rest as Resistance and defines rest as "anything that connects your mind and body".
Rest is a radically transformative healing act. Learning to rest without shame has saved my life.
My favorite rest practices:
Yoga Nidra for Deep Rest and Sleep
Progressive Muscle Relaxation for Embodied Calmness
Rest Life Meditation provided by the Nap Ministry
Spiritual Practice in the form of prayer, music, and ritual
Sound Healing and use of a Mantra
Centering Practice provided by Transgender Law Center
Grounding Practice for sensory exploration
Embodiment Practice #2 - Cultivate Comfortable Environments
Our body reacts and interacts with its environment constantly. You may notice your body is more at ease in certain settings. Notice what environments are comfortable and enlivening for you and cultivate your ideal sensory experiences in home, work, and rest environments.
Attend to your sensory needs and your unique sensory profile by considering these elements:
Temperature (air flow with fans, A/C and heat, ice pack, face roller, heating pad, warm bath, cold shower)
Light (sunlight exposure, black out curtains, soft/ambient lighting)
Texture (comfortable clothing and fabric, breathable sheets and clothes, weighted blankets, compression/pressure)
Sound (use of white or pink noise machine or apps, soothing music, nature sounds, use of headphones and earplugs)
Smell (essential oils, candles/wax melters, laundry detergent, home-cooked food, regular cleaning of space, incense)
The systems that help us move through the environment usually dictate our comfort level. It is important that we build systems for ourselves with our unique sensory needs and embodiment in mind.
"You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems." -James Clear, Atomic Habits
Building systems that attune to your unique needs and are comfortable for you is always a work in progress.
I like to think of myself as a conscious cultivator of my environment. By cultivating specific environmental experiences for myself, I create a spatial reality that is satisfying, comfortable, accessible, and right for me.
Embodiment Practice #3 - Engage Voice, Choice, and Bodily Autonomy
Bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right. This is a racial, sexual and gender equality issue pertaining to our ability to make decisions about our own body.
Here is my working definition: Bodily Autonomy is the right to have full governance over our body. Bodily Autonomy is a position that views individual people as the owners and determiners of their bodies. This includes the ability to freely and safely make decisions that will impact our health, wellbeing, and access to life-saving and life-giving treatment, including but not limited to reproductive healthcare, contraceptives and abortion.
Bodily autonomy is under attack and has been, especially for Trans folks, people of color, women, and those lacking access to healthcare, community, social services, and support. Queer and Trans women of color continue to fight for the right to bodily autonomy and the ability for all people, regardless of identity, to freely make choices regarding their body.
How do we preserve bodily autonomy? I believe it starts with preserving our hope, and managing our fear.
The maintenance of hope will not be handed to us. Hope requires cultivation from the ground up. Where do you find hope?
I find hope in SMALL and BEAUTIFUL changes. I see small shifts happening all the time and I know the transformative power of small and beautiful changes on the trajectory of someone’s life.
This is a reason I moved from macro social work to working with small groups, relationship systems, and individuals: I believe that humans are capable of so much good when given freedom to self-determine. Top-down social change is necessary, but often difficult to achieve. Old systems are still governing our world with fear and greed, and it is easy to turn to despair. Find hope in self and in the small, beautiful things that come from your relationship with your self, your community, and the world around you.
All individuals are capable of finding wellness and wholeness for themselves. Learn more about the Capability Approach.
Hope, resilience, and beauty empower us to engage in self advocacy and communicate our voice and choice.
Embodiment Practice #4 - Accommodate Your Needs and Desires
Listening to and accepting our needs is integral to our wellness. However, getting our needs met is often challenging. Accommodations are necessary is a disabling world.
Accommodations in occupational, home, and academic environments support all people in getting their needs met and achieving what they want regardless of barriers and challenges imposed by the environment.
The Social Model of Disability helps make sense of functional impairment by distinguishing between "impairments" and "disabilities".
Impairments can be understood as functional limitations someone might face (not being able to walk, communication differences, etc.)
Disabilities are disadvantages that stem "from a lack of fit between a body and its social environment". Disabilities are disadvantages imposed on individuals by a society that views and treats impairments as abnormal.
Here is my favorite peer reviewed article on the Social Model and Rethinking Disability.
“Ability and disability may be in part about the physical state of the body, but they are also produced by the relative flexibility or rigidity of the built world … [disability] reveals just how unfinished the world really is.” What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, by Sara Hendren
Accommodations help humans with differing abilities to move through the rigid world with flexibility.
What accommodations or support might make your world more accessible and flexible?
- resetting an environment
- assessing expectations of self
- getting resources and support
- cultivating space/time for rest
Embodiment Practice #5 - Stay Present and Centered
Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment on purpose. Meditation is one of many mindfulness tools that supports with presence.
Somatic Mindfulness involves an awareness of our bodily experience in the present moment. Here are a few mindful embodiment practices that help me and my clients: