Body Sense

Restorative embodied self-awareness as a pathway to well-being.

What is Body Sense?

What happens when we lose touch with our bodies?

Did you ever feel as if you lost touch with your body? Perhaps you developed a pain in your lower back or neck but you could not remember that you did anything that might have caused it. Maybe you started feeling ill at ease in situations that before felt comfortable. Or you gained weight without really noticing the increase until your clothes didn't fit.

These and other physical and mental afflictions - headaches, digestive troubles, depressive symptoms, lethargic feelings, aching joints, frequent colds and flus - are particularly annoying because they appear to creep up on us without prior warning. One day we are just fine and the next day, or so it seems, we don't feel so good.

The biological truth is that all of these things take a while, sometimes months or years, to grow within our bodies. The cells of the immune, digestive, muscular, metabolic, and nervous systems have to grow in ways that lead to these symptoms and biological growth takes time. The psychological truth is that we failed to notice these physiological changes in our bodies until they reached a level of damage to our systems that sent off the red flags of pain, distress, and discomfort. By that time, it might be too late to avoid medical intervention or other costly treatments. And the medical truth is that many of these ailments can't be easily or readily treated.

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Our bodies, however, have the capability to sense potentially harmful physiological growth processes long before they reach these critical and dangerous levels. Not only that, research shows that people who pick up on and respond to these early warning signals from their bodies are considerably less likely to develop the debilitating physical and mental health conditions mentioned above. This research also shows that the common underlying cause of many of these conditions is a lack of body sense.

Body sense is the ability to pay attention to ourselves, to feel our sensations, emotions, and movements on-line, in the present moment, without the mediating influence of judgmental thoughts. In fact, whenever those thoughts come into our awareness - thoughts like: Am I sick or just lazy? How did I get so fat? Does my life really matter to anyone? - we immediately go off line from our body sense.

Both the body sense and thoughts about ourselves are forms of self-awareness but they are fundamentally different. The body sense is more technically called embodied self-awareness. It is composed of sensations like warm, tingly, soft, nauseated, dizzy; emotions such as happy, sad, threatened; and other body senses like feeling the coordination (or lack of coordination) between the arms and legs while swimming, or sensing our shape and size (fat or thin), and sensing our location relative to objects and other people. Thoughts about the self are called conceptual self-awareness. The table below gives a summary of the differences.

Conceptual Self-Awareness         Embodied Self-Awareness

Based in language                      Based in sensing, feeling, and acting

Rational, explanatory                  Spontaneous, open to change

Abstract                                     Concrete, in the moment

Notice that embodied self-awareness occurs in the "present moment" while conceptual self-awareness is abstract and distant from the present moment. You can experience the difference by taking a few minutes right now. First, think about how you feel and have been feeling today and the past few days. What thoughts come to mind? You'll find it is fairly easy to generate a long list of self-descriptions in conceptual self-awareness.

Instead of trying to think about yourself, accessing embodied self-awareness is a bit like meditating on yourself. Sit or lie down in a comfortable place, remove any distractions that might disturb you. This works best if there is relative silence. Close your eyes. Here it starts to get more difficult. See if you can slow your thoughts long enough to feel something concrete right in the present moment. It doesn't really matter what you feel, so long as it captures your attention long enough for you to feel it: the hardness or softness of the surface on which you are lying or sitting, the texture of your clothing, a smell, a sound, or even an emotion that wants to surface. See how long you can stay with that sensation and see if you can "go into" it to explore how it makes you feel. Notice what else happens in your body. See how long you can follow these sensations and feelings and where they lead you.

If what comes up is something not in the immediate present, you know you've gone back to conceptual awareness and you'll need to remind yourself to come back to something very concrete. You may find that you can't do this very well. Accessing embodied self-awareness takes practice and for some people, it may require the help of another person or engaging in an embodied self-awareness practice (like yoga, tai chi, some types of meditation, somatic psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, or awareness-based bodywork treatments like Rosen Method Bodywork and the Feldenkrais Method). Just being willing to check in with your ability to access embodied self-awareness is already a step in the right direction. Continued practice has demonstrated positive benefits for physical and mental health.

Alan Fogel, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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