Embodiment: nature's help for anxiety, depression, PTSD, and stress

Nature and Embodiment, Lisa Dahlgren

Like all mammals, human beings have a robust complement of different body systems, all of which are geared to give us accurate information and moment-by-moment knowledge about ourselves and the world around us (Read: Come to Your Senses).  As you can imagine, having a variety of sources of information, especially about our safety, is extremely valuable when making decisions in the natural world.  This is also true in the human-made world where we spend most of our time.

Diminished embodiment creates disconnection and confusion between the many different ways we experience the world, thus setting us up for anxiety, depression, continued symptoms of PTSD, and stress.  Conversely, enhancing our ability to be in an embodied state (being aware of the sensations in our body as they are connected to our emotional and mental processes) produces greater awareness, inner connection, and flexibility in handling our emotions.

The cost of lost embodiment

It is not our fault that contemporary culture places a premium on thinking or cognitions (brain work).  Being able to reason and create solutions is the unique niche in which human beings survive and thrive.  As we evolved and created ways to ensure greater physical safety, more and more of our time could be spent in the world of our cognition-paving the way for immense creativity and more ways to remain physically safe.  It is a natural outgrowth of our strengths, therefore, that we have created technology that relies heavily on cognitions.  An unfortunate outcome is that from a very early age we are encouraged to engage more with our brain than any other system of our body.  As the saying goes; “Use it or lose it”, and this applies to embodiment as well.  The more we do not engage with our whole body system the more we fall out of touch with it.

When we become disconnected from these internal resources, we lose important information and have greater difficulty in understanding our own sensations and impulses.  For example, imagine you have a history of others breaking their promises and the disappointment that entails.  Then, you meet someone who tells you they will keep their word, and you want to believe them, but are hesitant.  You may find your head is telling you one thing, but other sensations (i.e., your gut) are telling you something else.  If you are unfamiliar with listening to those other sensations, they will be difficult to decipher, and confusing.  In some cases just that difficulty alone can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress.  Those added feelings of confusion can be particularly difficult when you are already experiencing those feeling states.

The richness of embodied living

When we embrace our body systems and open ourselves to communicating with them, we start to truly understand what they are telling us and feel how helpful the connections are.  As we grow in our ability to be in an embodied way, it is as if we are suddenly bringing multiple, loving, concerned, friends, into our daily life.  Friends we can believe in, and trust.  Friends that supply deep and wonderful resources that we carry with us wherever we go-resources that are not dependent upon our location, business hours, or phone service.  They are available 24/7, and act only for our safety and health.

Alerting us to potentially unsafe situations is just one aspect of what our body systems communicate.  They are also a part of all of the rich and deep emotional experiences we have as human beings.  Although some of those emotional experiences are difficult ones, such as: grief, disappointment, pain, and rejection, there are at least an equal number of emotional experiences that expand us, such as: joy, satisfaction, awe, ad mystery.  Embodiment means we are reaping the benefits of the richness of our human experience, which in itself carries a sense of completeness, and fulfillment.

Choosing embodiment

So, how can we befriend our systems and increase the communication between systems?  First of all, we can get a handle on just how much time we spend turning away from embodiment.  As you begin to notice your own inner process, you may be surprised to learn just how many activities and devices you use on a daily basis that take you away from embodiment.  Computers, tv, hand-held devices, phones, and gaming are obvious ones.  Cars, buildings, comfort foods of all varieties, and substances are others.  Then there are some that are not as obvious, such as clothes, shoes, daydreaming, and noisy or climate-controlled environments.  Some activities that take us away from embodiment are actually counter-intuitive, such as: listening to peaceful music, guided imagery, and some types of meditation.  In short, we turn away from embodiment with every activity that asks us to use our cognition, including those that rely on fantasy (including the fantasy of an embodied experience).

Next, you can begin to make CHOICES about how much time you will spend doing activities that promote an un-embodied experience, such as spending less time each day engaged with devices.  You can also CHANGE some of what you do to become more embodied.  For example, instead of running to get out of the rain, make that unexpected shower an opportunity to experience a rain walk, where you mindfully, and as fully as possible, be with all of your sensations during the storm.  You can also start to have embodied experiences in your day by COMMITTING to do at least some activity that promotes an embodied experience, such as the ones listed below.

Tips for embodied living

In nature-connected work there are many different ways to have a embodied experience because simply being in nature promotes an embodied experience. The following practices can help you take steps to mindfully move into nature, specifically for experiencing a more embodied life.

Simply taking a walk outside will promote an embodied experience.  However, you can enhance your nature experience in several ways.  One way is to let go of the headphones, podcasts, or peace-inducing music, to let yourself more fully experience what is around you as you walk or hike.  Another way is to purposefully stop to gaze at the details of nature, while you ask yourself to listen to your body.  Even slowing down your movements while you walk helps you become more embodied.

Go into the forest with an attitude of playfulness.  Rather than walk or hike through the forest, let yourself go a little.  Play hide and seek with the shadow, try to creep up on a butterfly, let your body move like it is a different animal, give permission for your body to sway with the wind, walk in super slow motion, pick up a rock ad move it from one hand to another, noticing how that feels in your hands and your toes.

Engage in the meditative practice of a Sit Spot or Surround Awareness, by quieting your mind and then focusing on one sense at a time for a period of about 5 minutes.  End by allowing yourself to open to all senses at the same time and see if you can move back into your daily routine while still being in that open, embodied way.

Participate in a “wander”’ where you don’t decide with your mind where to go, but follow the direction your feet tell you to go.  During your wander, stop every so often and ask yourself, “what am I noticing right now?”, “How does this feel?”, “What is coming up for me?”

Anyone can develop embodied awareness and reap the rewards of embodied living.  When you make choices, change some behavior (even a small one) and/or make a commitment to have an embodied daily practice, you choose to live a more full life.

If  enhancing embodied living through nature connection seems interesting or exciting to you, please consider coming to my offering of “Receiving the Forest”, or contacting me for further discussion and support.  Wishing you all the best.