Body Awareness & Trauma
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Let’s first define awareness as your ability to notice a (sensory) signal – things you smell, hear, feel, etc. For example, when you are concentrated on something you become unaware of what’s going on around you – while completely engrossed in a project, you register little else including sound. However, unless you literally cannot hear, you know that you can rely on sound to snap you back into reality and make sense of your external world. In fact, it is often essential to use sound (or your other senses) to notice changes. In those moments, you’re using your awareness to take in information.
When it comes to body awareness, you often pay less attention because things may not change minute-to-minute. You also live in your own body, making the need for attunement less urgent. You may be more aware of what your body looks like to other people in social settings than what it looks like, to yourself. So, let’s consider body awareness your ability to notice a sensory signal coming from within your own body.
There’s interoception which has to do with the internal state of your organs and cardiovascular system. Having a sense of interoceptive sensations means you can recognize heat, cold, warmness, fullness, emptiness, tingling, burning, tightness, etc. The ability to be aware of interoceptive signals is essential to understanding your emotions and to assess your level of stress or fatigue. Proprioception is your sense of the position and movement of your body. Your brain typically calculates these positions without your awareness. People who have difficulty with their proprioceptive system are who we call clumsy. Spatial awareness is your ability to understand the position of your body, and other objects, in space. Mentally rotating objects, reading maps and coordinating the movements of your body parts in space requires spatial awareness.
So, how is this useful in terms of trauma?
For starters, strong body awareness allows you to name and raise insights around how you, viscerally, experience your emotions and feelings.
When you experience rage, where do you feel it in your body? Is it hot or cold? Is it a buzzing or soothing sensation? Or perhaps, this process will be the other way around for you. When you experience a buzzing, burning sensation, what is that called?
Along with naming and exploring how you experience feelings in your body, you can also start to recognize when, and where, they begin and mostly importantly, how they end.
Do you know the moment you feel rage in your body? Where does it start? And further, how do you know when you are no longer feeling it? How do you know when you are back at baseline?
Then you can begin to recognize patterns and themes.
What are the things that make you feel rage? What triggers it? What’s going on around you, what’s been said to you, etc. that create that feeling?
And then finally, you can create space for more control and tolerance.
You’ve named it rage, you know what triggers it, where it starts, how it feels in your body, etc. and now you can practice choosing the pace. Are you going to gas it? Or are you going to put on the breaks? What makes tolerating rage easier or more difficult?
Another important piece of body awareness and trauma is the reality that you have to be in your body in order to process trauma. Most trauma therapists ask questions like, “where do you feel it in your body?” to bring your attention directly to your body and your awareness (or lack thereof) of it. This is, in part, to highlight the former (raising insights, naming, patterns/themes, etc.) and also to bring you into the present (to make sure you aren’t dissociating). An essential part of processing unresolved trauma is recognizing it is over, there is an end, that it is in the past. This requires you to be in your body, right here, right now. Being able to feel the chair underneath your butt while you recall a traumatic memory is your anchor into the present as you process what’s in the past.
You can also use body awareness to remember that your body is your friend. Body awareness is used as a way to recognize uncomfortable, intolerable and painful emotions/feelings AND it can be used to experience joy, pleasure, softness, etc. Body awareness allows you to recognize when the stove is hot and to pull your hand away AND to taste the divine meal from your favorite restaurant. Imagine not being able to melt into a hug? Or feel the sand against your toes at the beach? Practicing body awareness means (re)creating a sense of safety which is indispensable when you have endless experiences feeling unsafe in your body or believing your body is your enemy. Re-creating visceral experiences of safety within your body means (re)introducing yourself to a baseline that deviates from constant irritability or anxiety. Body awareness around joy, pleasure, and safety are just as, if not more, important than your awareness of “unwanted” feelings.
Think of your senses – what is your favorite smell? What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten? What is your favorite thing to feel against your skin? What sound makes you feel calm?
Practicing body awareness.
First, do not move. Notice the position you are sitting in right now. What sensations do you become aware of?
Scan your whole body: notice your head, neck, chest, back, stomach, legs, feet, arms, etc. Are you comfortable? Do not move, yet.
How do you know if you are comfortable or not? Which sensations indicate comfort/discomfort?
Do you have an impulse to change your position? Do not do it yet, just notice the impulse.
Where does that impulse come from?
If you were to change your position, what part of your body would you move first? Do not do it yet.
First follow that impulse back to the discomfort that is driving it: is your neck tense? Is there somewhere that is beginning to become numb? Are your toes cold?
Now follow the impulse and change position. What changes have occurred in your body? Are you breathing easier? Is a pain or area of tension relieved? Are you more alert?
If you have no impulse to change your position now, you might just be comfortable. See which bodily cues you get that signal that you are comfortable: are your shoulders relaxed? Is your breathing deep? Is your body generally warm?
Next, change your position whether or not you are comfortable. Change where or how you are sitting. Move somewhere else: try a new chair, stand up, sit on the floor, etc.
Take a new position and hold it. Then evaluate again: are you comfortable or not?
Which bodily sensations tell you: tension, relaxation, warmth, cold, numbness, breathing depth and location, etc.
This time also notice if you are more alert or awake in this position versus the last one.
Try a third position. Evaluate as above.
Write a few notes about your experience, keeping in the language of body sensation: tension, temperature, breathing, etc. What was that like for you? What were you aware of? What weren’t you aware of? What was it like to bring that level of awareness to your body? Were there parts of your body that you ignored or were there parts of your body you were more focused on? This is a great start to building body awareness; to literally practice becoming aware of your body!
Info on the types of body awareness from baseworks.com and practicing body awareness from The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild