To embody an emotion is to expand the experience of an emotion to as much of the body as possible. When we do that, we are able to tolerate and stay with the emotional experience for much longer; and our thinking and behavior in relation to the emotion improve. The practice of embodying emotion is of value to both unpleasant emotions such as sadness and pleasant emotions such as happiness. The strategy of embodying emotions is based on the latest research findings in affective neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and body psychotherapy.
How can embodying the emotion of happiness improve a person’s well-being?
When we expand the experience of happiness to as much of the body as possible, we are able to increase, stay with, and enjoy our happiness for a much longer period. Our thinking and behavior will improve to support that we remain happy longer, by making our thinking and behavior more positive to enhance and support our happiness or by exposing and resolving our thinking and feeling that do not support our happiness. And, because unpleasant emotions are associated with states of increasing stress and dysregulation and pleasant emotions with states of decreasing stress and increasing regulation in the brain and body physiology, embodying pleasant emotions such as happiness can improve our health and energy as well as make us more resilient in the face of life’s challenges, consistent with the findings in positive psychology that people who are happier tend to be healthier and more resilient, physically and psychologically.
How we can enhance the practice Positive Psychology through the Practice of Embodying Emotions
Positive psychology emphasizes the important role positive cognitions, emotions, and behaviors can play in increasing our wellbeing any therapeutic process. Just as there are any number of positive cognitions and behaviors, there are also any number of positive emotions. However, most if not all psychotherapy approaches work with only a limited number of pleasant and unpleasant emotions, influenced by the academic research on emotions that usually focuses only on a limited number and vocabulary of emotions. Integral Somatic Psychology (ISP) in its primary clinical strategy of the practice of embodying emotions works creatively with a large range of emotions including the always-present and often-overlooked sensorimotor emotions, psychologically meaningful body states such as feeling good or feeling as though each cell in the body were eating chocolate, for example. We often have more access to such positive sensorimotor emotions and are able to embody them with greater ease than the basic emotion of happiness.
At times, expanding positive emotional experiences in a body is made difficult by the body shutting down due to its inability to tolerate an unpleasant emotion. When the chest is constricted against the experience of grief, it is hard to feel joy there let alone expand it from there to other places in the body. In such instances, practitioners of positive psychology can work to free the body for the experience and expansion of positive emotions in an efficient manner by having the unpleasant emotion of grief embodied first, as expanding unpleasant emotions has been shown to be quite effective in increasing one’s ability to tolerate them and in freeing the body from defenses against emotions.
RAJA SELVAM, Ph.D., is the developer of Integral Somatic Psychology, an approach based on the paradigm of embodied cognition, emotion, and behavior in cognitive and affective neuroscience. He is the author of The Practice of Embodying Emotions: A Guide to Improving Cognitive, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes.