Joy. Anger. Sadness. Grief. Loneliness. Shame. Fear. 

At this point in my life, I derive pleasure from the range of emotions I am capable of experiencing. My brief list above only scratches the surface. Like colors, their hues and shades combine with one another to paint my life with never-ending variety and interest. 

I didn’t always feel that way. Throughout my life, I have often avoided strong and prolonged emotions like anger, fear and sadness that tend to create turmoil and inner conflict. Avoiding difficult or hard things has taken the form of trying to become numb in order to feel as little as possible. Perhaps more accurately, I avoid confronting hard emotions, preferring instead to deny or spin a different story around them. Even when it feels safe to be honest, the language sometimes eludes me. Hard-pressed to accurately name a feeling, I often use the word “tired” to describe a wide range of emotional states in order to smooth down rough edges I’m uncomfortable letting others see. With maturity, I am slowly growing into the ability to celebrate raw and real for the gifts they are, but as a young person without a strong identity, those things were rarely palatable or welcome. Unless my heart opens to the Holy Spirit’s soft whisper, the belief that emotions make a person weak and vulnerable causes me to walk around with my mask firmly in place at all times. 

The truth is that emotions are powerful. Motivating. Enlightening. That power can either be left to deteriorate into an unstable energy source or channeled into a force for healing and growth. When I began working through the stages of trauma recovery, I found myself frustrated and overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotional well I had kept tightly sealed for years in order to survive. I needed to find a new way — a safe way — to explore my inner landscape while grounding my emotions; otherwise, I might rip myself apart.    

Movement became my salvation. It’s no accident that ‘emotion’ is basically ‘motion’ with an ‘e’ attached. For better or worse, the body is a lightning rod that absorbs emotional energy, and one of the healthiest choices I made was to figure out how to move that energy through my system, dissipating and dispersing it rather than holding it in. And the more I practiced reading the way my body responded to different emotions, the more I found that instead of denying or repressing how I felt, I was developing the integrity to handle my emotions responsibly. I was able to welcome emotions as feedback, smoke signals that point me toward understanding.  

Here are a few ways I have found to practice using my body to ground emotional energy in a way that promotes healing instead of harm.

1. Tuning in to the sensations

There’s a subtle but potent shift that happens the moment I decide to pay attention to the way my body carries me through a movement (or a series of movements). Nothing else about the movement changes. But the decision to notice the little things — like tension behind my ears or at the base of my skull when I turn my head, or the way the back of my thigh protests when I ease into a stretch, or the release of tension from my jaw when I inhale deeply — creates a foundation for connecting with and understanding my emotions, because emotions often manifest as bodily sensations. That twinge at the base of my skull might be from sleeping at a weird angle, not from carrying a feeling of sadness or insecurity, but the practice of paying attention better positions me to know the difference. It also means that my body builds an awareness of the present moment, instead of slipping into the past or hurrying into the future.

Being present means that I am right here, right now. “Wherever you are, be all there.” Jim Elliot’s timeless words have always brought me a sense of clarity about what might otherwise be complex. No answers are needed, no resolution is required. I just need to show up for my life as it comes and bring everything I am to the experience. Easier said than done. 

I find the intentional approach works best. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating body awareness into daily routines:

Mindful Movement Breaks: Throughout the day, I need to be reminded to step away from my computer for simple movements like shoulder rolls, stretching or a walk. My attention goes to the sensations, the inward and outward flow of my breath and the sensory details that anchor me in the moment.  

Body Scan Meditation: I like to do this lying down. In a quiet, comfortable space, with my eyes closed, I systematically bring my attention to different parts of my body, starting from the toes and moving up to the head. I note sensations as well as areas of tension.

Sensory Activities: A good example of this is paying attention to the tastes, textures and smells of food while eating. Another is feeling the sensation of water against the skin in the shower. Perhaps indulging in the smell of the earth after it rains or feeling the grit of sand against feet and toes at the beach.

2. Letting Emotions Flow

A large part of my recovery was – and still is – learning how to relinquish control, approaching life with an open heart instead of a closed and contracted posture. A step beyond simply tuning in, using movement as a tool for expression and release allows that which is noticed to flow without damming up in damaging and destructive ways. Like music or art, movement helps to articulate depth and intensity on a level beyond words. It serves as a cathartic release for pent-up anger, grief, and even joy. It integrates what I experience mentally with what I feel physically, illustrating and deepening my awareness of myself as a holistic creation.

Once again, intention sets the tone and influences the nature of the current. I find that it also helps to enlist the aid of an experienced guide or mentor, especially if I’m seeking to understand and work through deeper layers. Personally, I prefer meditative and deliberate movements over extemporaneous. Having a structure to follow creates a container for what bubbles to the surface. The least helpful way to work through something is mindless, haphazard movements resulting in damage to muscle and tissue.

Shaking It Off: In-the-moment, involuntary shaking or rocking is often repressed, the same way tears are held in, but both have a natural place in purging excess energy. Literally shaking things off is a powerful way to work through stress. Animals do this instinctively after experiencing a life-threatening or traumatic event, and I find that giving the body space to simply work through what it needs to can be extremely beneficial and validating. A quiet space, along with dim or dark lighting and a soft surface, helps to soothe the nervous system and return it to a normal baseline.   

Outdoor Walking or Running: Combining repetitive, meditative walking or running with fresh air, light and green space is the ultimate recipe for nurturing and channeling the flow of emotions. I find that movement eases the resistance to simply noticing thoughts and observing emotions as they flow by when seated meditation makes me want to crawl out of my skin.  

3. Reinforcing the Mind-Body Connection

Out of necessity, my job requires me to spend more hours than I’d like in front of my laptop, where my movements are decreased and my intellectual capability is emphasized instead. The rest of the time, I carry around an iPhone, “plugged-in” and accessible, fully absorbed by the world inside my tiny screen, preoccupied with virtual experiences. Finally, I often find myself intellectualizing my emotions instead of fully experiencing them, especially in social settings where it’s more difficult to be vulnerable.

All of the above are examples of how easily the mind and body become divorced from one another. Reconnecting, for me, is about embracing lifestyle practices that integrate bodily sensations and signals associated with emotional experiences as well as promote holistic well-being. 

Yoga: Combining breath work, meditation and movement, I find that yoga serves as a touchpoint in my day or week. It’s an appointment I keep with myself, and every time I show up on the mat, I am reminded that I am more than a machine. I am a spiritual creation with a deep need to integrate all sides of myself into a single, harmonious unit.   

Massage/Bodywork: I find that most people are unaware of how deeply their emotions are woven into the fabric of their tissue. Bodywork done with care and intention is a powerful tool for unlocking emotions that are difficult to verbalize, helping the body come into the present moment and release stress and tension. NOTE: Not all practitioners have a feel for this, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. The rapport between client and therapist is a delicate thread woven from the life experience, training and personality of both people.

Emotions are not purely cognitive; they are also experienced in the body. Movement allows me to access and tap into an embodied experience by directly engaging with the physical sensations and responses associated with different emotions.  Through movement, I bring attention to the felt sense of emotions, which allows me to access and understand them on a deep level.

I will always remember what a teacher of mine emphasized over and over throughout my introductory massage training: all healing happens in the present. This is the crux of the body’s genius, because no matter where my mind is, whether past or future, my body is always here. Right here, right now. In the moment, guiding me gently toward inner peace and equilibrium.

One of my favorite authors wrote these words over 100 years ago:

“The mind and the soul find expression through the body. … The laws that govern our physical organism, God has written upon every nerve, muscle, and fiber of the body. … and true beauty will be secured, not in marring God’s work, but in coming into harmony with the laws of Him who created all things, and who finds pleasure in their beauty and perfection.” Education, p. 195-198