Embodied Self-Compassion

Support for your Healing Journey

Embodied Self-Compassion with Dr. Arielle Schwartz

One of the most common barriers to healing that I see as a psychologist and trauma specialist is when we experience feelings of despair and hopelessness. Sometimes it may feel as if nothing you do is going to make a difference. In these moments, it is important to learn how to turn toward these difficult feelings without over-identifying with them. Embodied self-compassion becomes an essential tool that helps you to do so. 

Self-compassion is an act of friendliness toward yourself in which you practice extending kindness toward yourself through your words and actions. Regrettably, with a history of trauma, it is often difficult to turn toward yourself in a loving manner. Sometimes, the invitation to bring in self-compassion leads to an increase in self-criticism along with distressing emotions or an increase in physical tension. We might feel caught in a downward spiral of distress.

If you find it difficult to accept yourself, this post focuses on simple practices that you can incorporate in your daily life to help you lovingly accept yourself. Moreover, compassion practices also invite you to challenge and dispute self-disparaging beliefs such as when you tell yourself you are unworthy or unlovable. Embodied Self-Compassion invites you to turn toward your body in a loving manner while enhancing a felt sense of ease in the present moment.

The Science of Safety

Embodied Self-Compassion Dr. Arielle Schwartz

You can learn to attend to your symptoms without reliving or over-focusing on your pain. Rather than focusing on the stories of your past, you begin to notice physiological effects that traumatic stress has had on our body and mind through the applied the science of polyvagal theory, also known as “the science of safety.”

Polyvagal theory recognizes that your vagus nerve is a key to mind-body health. The vagus nerve is considered to be a superhighway of communication between your brain and your body. The word “vagus” is Latin for wandering. This is an appropriate descriptor because this key nerve in your body connects your brain to your stomach, intestines, heart, lungs, throat, ears, and facial muscles. By applying polyvagal theory to trauma treatment, you can rebalance your nervous system and, as a result, the mental and emotional repercussions of trauma become more manageable.

Polyvagal theory recognizes that we as humans are equipped with the same survival strategies seen in animals. When we feel safe, we are more likely to seek connection with each other through the ventral vagal circuit. We are able to feel compassion, comfort others, and behave generously. We are also more likely to feel lovingly connected to ourselves. However, when we are in danger, we progress through a predictable set of responses. This is referred to as the tiered response to threat. Initially, we might attempt to resolve a threat by establishing social connection. We call out to others or reach out our hands for help. If we are unable to restore a sense of safety and connection, we then rely upon our sympathetic nervous system in order to flee from or fight off the source of threat. If this is unsuccessful, we regress into the dorsal vagal circuit which immobilizes us into a feigned death response. In this state, we feel helpless, powerless, or collapsed. 

Polyagal theory provides a compassionate way of understanding your own threat responses by recognizing that your nervous system is working hard to ensure your survival. If you relate to the tiered response to threat, you are not alone. 

Sometimes we might get stuck in a defensive state for many years. For example, you might remain in a constant state of alertness or in a flight response in which you are looking for a way to get away from any potential source of threat. Perhaps you remain more in a fight response in which you find it difficult to let down your guard. Others of us might feel more withdrawn or collapsed which can lead to persistent feelings of isolation, helplessness, or despair. Over time, we might simply think that these nervous system states are who we are. 

Importantly, there is a way to unwind from these defensive reactions. Embodied Self-Compassion is one path to releasing the pain and letting down your guard so that you can receive your birthright of softness, easefulness, and inner joy.

Navigating Barriers to Trauma Recovery

One of the biggest challenges that can arise during trauma recovery is that we might avoid engaging in the very things that would help us to heal. If you find it difficult to make the time for yourself, you are not alone. This too is one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Common barriers to self-care include: 

  • You resist self-care: Like many of us, you may have internalized messages that making time for yourself was selfish or greedy. As a result, you might feel ashamed of your needs when they arise or unworthy of taking time for yourself. To navigate this barrier, it is important to reclaim a new narrative about your self-worth. Taking time for yourself is necessary for your wellbeing. Self-care is not selfish, it is essential. 
  • You fear becoming overwhelmed: You might feel frightened that if you slow down or take the time to connect to your body that you will feel overwhelmed by your emotions. While it is true that our bodies carry our wounds, healing does not require that you consistently confront your pain. Instead, healing invites you to recognize that you can be in charge of where you focus your attention. 
  • You feel isolated in your healing journey: With a history of trauma, you might feel burdened by beliefs that you do not belong or that you are unlovable. These beliefs can lead you to further isolate yourself from others. We all need to feel connected to others. Positive and caring social connections help us heal. To navigate this barrier, you might seek out meet-up organizations or therapeutic groups focused on healing and creating safe spaces for connection. 
  • You have a pervasive feeling of powerlessness: Have you experienced times in your life where no matter what you did, you couldn’t change your circumstances? Maybe you couldn’t stop parents from drinking, hurting each other, or hurting you. Or, perhaps you have been discriminated against and unprotected by your community or country. In these cases, it is common to feel voiceless and powerless. As a result, you might believe that no matter how hard you work, your efforts will never make a difference in the outcome of your day, week, or life. The key to change is recognizing that now can be different from then. There are always small changes that you can make that will make a difference in the outcome of this hour, your day, and your week. Each small action you take to build your resilience accumulates and ultimately helps you feel empowered to create a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Cultivate a Loving Relationship with Yourself

When you have a history of trauma, it is common to internalize critical or disparaging messages toward yourself which can develop into negative beliefs about yourself. For example, you might believe that you are unworthy, unlovable, weak, or broken. These negative beliefs interfere with your ability to know that you deserve to be loved, supported, and treated with respect. Reclaiming a loving internal voice invites you to notice unhelpful narratives and revise the ways that you speak to yourself. 

This loving voice is a foundation for self-compassion. Engaging in loving kindness and compassion based practices is associated with an increase in the healthy tone of your vagus nerve and greater positive emotions along with reductions in symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety (Phillips & Hine, 2021).

Do any of these negative beliefs arise for you? 

  • I am not enough
  • I am unworthy
  • I am unlovable
  • I am broken
  • I am helpless and powerless to change my circumstances
  • I have to be perfect in order to be loved

I invite you to identify reparative, positive beliefs that can generate greater kindness toward yourself. 

  • I am good enough just as I am
  • I am worthy and deserving of…(love, kindness, respect, etc.)
  • I am lovable
  • I am whole
  • I have choices now that can support me to create a healthy and meaningful life
  • I can love and accept myself just as I am

Slow and Steady

Embodied Self-Compassion
Tortoise image: M Kooragamage

In the classic fable, the Tortoise and the Hare, these two characters are in a race. The hare runs so fast he exhausts himself; whereas, the tortoise who moves slow and steady wins the race. If you are constantly running, unable to stop and rest, you will end of wearing yourself down. In contrast, if as a tortoise you were stuck in your shell you might now know how to get yourself moving again. Healing from trauma requires that you find a way to engage in life in a manner that is sustainable and nourishing to your body and mind.  

A slow and steady approach invites you to connect to your body at a pace that you supports your growth. Initially it might feel frightening to sense your body, especially if you have felt shut down. Disconnecting from your body or dissociating from your feelings may have been an important way of protecting yourself from intolerable emotions such as fear, sadness, or shame. If you push yourself too quickly you might inadvertently trigger an impulse to shut-down again—like a rubber band that has been stretched, you snap back into contraction and self-protection. 

Embodied Self-Compassion

Embodied Self-Compassion Arielle Schwartz

It is powerful to practice self-compassion as a body-centered practice. You can do so by placing your hands over your head, throat, chest, or belly. In general, touch has been shown to reduce stress hormones, heart rate, and blood pressure while increasing the feel-good neurochemicals of oxytocin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and serotonin (Truitt, 2022). These hormones and neurotransmitters are associated with enhanced tone of the vagus nerve and inhibition of the sympathetic nervous system. They are also the same chemicals that are released when babies feel safe and loved by their caregivers. 

I invite you to try strengthening positive and affirming beliefs about yourself while engaging in an embodied self-compassion exercise. These practices are simple, yet powerful body-centered ways to anchor a felt sense of connection to yourself while repeating statements that strengthen self-acceptance, loving kindness, and self-compassion. You can choose to do some or all of these practices and adapt them as needed so that they feel comfortable for you. These practices are a lovely way to offer toward yourself first thing in the morning as a daily practice. You might begin exploring these practices in moments of ease and calm and they can also be beneficial to return to during moments of emotional distress. Over time, you might discover that you are automatically drawn the self-applied touch and accompanying statements of self-acceptance. With repeated practice, embodied self-compassion simply becomes a part of your everyday life.

  • Practice 1: Place your hands around your cheeks as you allow your face to rest in your palms. While holding your head in your hands, quietly say to yourself, “Even though I sometimes have negative or self-critical thoughts, I am willing to generate loving and kind thoughts toward myself.” Repeat these words two more times while resting your head in your hands.
  • Practice 2: Place your hands gently along the sides of your neck so that the heels of your palms come together in front of your chin. With your hands lightly placed over your throat, quietly say to yourself, “Even though I feel hurt, I can acknowledge these feelings while being gentle with myself.” Repeat these words two more times while gently supporting your neck and throat with your hands.
  • Practice 3: Place your hands over your heart in the center of your chest. With your hands over your heart, quietly say to yourself, “Even though I sometimes feel unworthy or unlovable, I recognize that all people including myself deserve compassion, love, and support.” Repeat these words two more times while holding your heart.

As you come to completion with these practices, what are you aware of now?

Support for your Healing Journey

Looking for resources to support your healing journey? If the embodied self-compassion practices resonated with you, subscribe to my vagus nerve yoga classes on my YouTube Channel and learn more about this approach to healing in my books

Books by Dr. Arielle Schwartz

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of seven books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery. 

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.

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