Healing and Self-Embodiment following a Pandemic

Matthew W. Henninger, BA; University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

As a graduate student in psychology, I am trained to process experiences with my clients, find meaning, and perhaps develop skills for adaptive recovery. In a pandemic, these conversations become heightened and we can often find ourselves becoming lost, unknown to what it may feel like to be in touch with ourselves while we care for our clients, families, friends, etc. I have seen a lot of pieces on the negative impacts of the pandemic and have been engaged in conversations about the loss of productivity, motivation, and feeling out of control. However, now that we are slowly moving into a recovery movement (I should say adjustment as opposed to recovery, since we are becoming more accustomed to this experience as part of our everyday), I believe it’s important to share how we can continue to engage with the self and move our bodies in positive ways.

Humans are bodies and bodies are movement. We are not meant to be stationary both in our environment as well as within ourselves. We are patterns of movement potential that exist and function to make more movement (LaMothe, 2016). How we navigate our world is based on our movement within it, how we engage our sensory awareness enables us to establish a more attentiveness to our bodies and our own movement making (LaMothe, 2016). It’s not about exercising more during a pandemic or even post-pandemic, it’s rather being present with our senses, creating an awareness that is fundamentally built on where we stand with our bodies and the environment. 

So how do we create movement? One that immediately comes up for me is mindful movement. Mindful Movement is the opportunity to check in with your body and what it’s asking for in terms of physical activity, rather than forcing it into something you feel like you “should” be doing (Halliwell, 2013). This form of movement encourages you to be intentional about and aware of every move you make, and to focus on the quality of your movements and how they make you feel (Halliwell, 2013). For example, asking yourself the following questions can spark moments of self-embodiment: “What do I feel when I allow myself to move slowly?”, “How does my body respond when I slow down?”, “Where does my attention rest when I move slowly?”. With any mindful practice, it is natural for attention to wander away from the present. It is also common for negative reactions to come to fruition when we stop and be here with our bodies. The concept of slowing down can create opportunities for repressed feelings or experiences to become known. Therefore, the focus here is on pendulation, or the practice of shifting focus from areas of dark (i.e., pain/struggle) to light (i.e., ease/flow) and back again. Spending time acknowledging those areas of pain or ways that the body has been harmed when we slow down is equally as important as transitioning to areas of ease, such as how light one’s footsteps may feel, noticing the gentle breeze on the skin, or bringing awareness to one’s posture and how certain parts of the body operate when moving. 

Dr. Catherine Cook-Cottone’s Attuned Representation Model of Self (ARMS; 2015a, 2015b) sufficiently captures the experience of self-embodiment as we continue to heal during a pandemic. Cook-Cottone writes that “healthy, embodied self-regulation occurs when an individual is able to maintain an awareness and maintenance of the needs of the inner aspects of self, while engaging effectively within the context of family, community, and culture” (Cook-Cottone, 2016). This model (ARMS) postulates the self as an active construction; a representation of the needs of both the inner and outer aspects of living. While mindful movement can directly address the inner sensations of the body during practice, the movement also captures our outer experience; how we see and move our bodies can be a direct result of external influences that we may or may not be able to control (i.e., a pandemic). How our body outwardly responds to these stimuli, such as loss of sleep, maladaptive eating patterns, and sedentary behaviors, impacts how we perceive and engage with our internal body as well (i.e., feelings of inadequacy, catastrophizing, etc.).  

Embodiment work during a pandemic can make it difficult to shift our attention towards experiences that make us feel free or connected to the many parts of ourselves. However, mindful movement is a unique and intuitive practice that introduces or brings us back to our bodies. In times of uncertainty, one of the first connections we lose is the connection to self and body. Cook-Cottone writes that “the body and its corporal needs are split apart from the conceptual image of self so many of us are working to manage” (2016). Mindful and embodiment practices allow us the opportunities to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that have been split or fragmented and work to integrate them back into our daily lives. This, in many ways, is a first step towards recovery and healing; to bring us back to a “centered, functional, and embodied experience of self” (Cook-Cottone, 2016). 


Further Reading

Cook-Cottone, C. P. (2016, February 2). The Attuned Representation of Self (ARMS): 10 Practices for Incorporating Positive Body Image into the Treatment of Eating Disorders. Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue. https://www.edcatalogue.com/the-attuned-representation-of-self-arms-10-practices-for-incorporating-positive-body-image-into-the-treatment-of-eating-disorders/

Cook-Cottone, C. P. (2015a). Mindfulness and yoga for self-regulation: A primer for mental health professionals. Springer.

Cook-Cottone, C. P. (2015b). Incorporating positive body image into the treatment of eating disorders: A model for attunement and mindful self-care. Body Image, 14, 158-167. 

Halliwell, E. (2013, May 22). Mindful Movement: What mindful movement teaches us about our habitual patterns of thinking. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/mindful-movement-2/

LaMothe, K. L. (2016, November 30). Are Humans “Born to Move”? What can we learn from the Hadza hunter gatherers of Tanzania? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-body-knows/201611/are-humans-born-move