Embodied Emotion: What is it and why does it matter?
The concept of embodied emotion is very significant in the practice of psychotherapy although it is often traditionally ignored using talk therapy interventions where the emphasis is placed on words and speech. Growing research in the field of trauma treatment has demonstrated the importance of the body in processing, analyzing, storing and expressing emotions.
The often cited work by Bessel van der Kolk , M.D. in his bestselling book ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ has opened up a gateway for treatment professionals to pay attention to the role of the body in psychotherapy, specifically in the treatment of trauma. Mental health professionals are often and unknowingly ‘experts’ in examining body language including postures, facial expressions and gestures. The interactions between client and therapist can offer a window into the experience of the client far greater than the spoken words during a session.
Paula M. Niedenthal and Marcus Maringer (2009) published an article in the special section of ‘Emotion Review’ journal where they explain the different theories of embodiment, with the consensus that “thought and language rely on partial reactivations of neural states in sensory-motor and affective systems to perform their tasks”. In other words, we do not learn or experience life solely by understanding words but rather we feel our way through life, using our senses and emotional intelligence which are constantly and automatically working for us, with no necessary effort from our part.
Body language is how our bodies express, or even betray our hidden thoughts and beliefs and directly impacts our relationships with others. But there is much more that we can do to purposefully change how we feel, by manipulating our body posture and movements. Harvard research by Amy Cuddy (2012) gives us evidence regarding the use of body language and introduced the concept of ‘Power Posing’. See her TED talk click here (link) https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_cuddy_your_body_language_may_shape_who_you_are/up-next
I like to use elements of yoga and the evidence-based science of embodied emotion during my therapy sessions with my clients to help them feel their feelings, as well as feel my own reactions during treatment. This understanding also helps me as a clinician to pick up on often unspoken aspects of a person’s situation or circumstances that may be contributing to mental health symptoms. Feeling low or stuck? Stand up, take a deep breath and ‘power pose’, extending your arms up over your head and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Smile to send ‘happiness signals’ to your brain, pull your shoulders away from your ears to promote confidence and relaxation throughout the day.