by Lauren Fallat, MA LPC ATR-BC
Combining somatic techniques in therapy with art therapy, the body outline is a useful tool for drawing awareness to our body sensations and transforming these sensations into colors, patterns, lines and shapes in order to communicate the sensation in a visual way. The goal of this exercise is to draw awareness to the emotions that live in the body while remaining grounded. It is important to attune to your body and bodily processes in the present as you connect with emotions and feelings stemming from previous life experiences. This work is significant and impactful with those who have experienced past trauma or currently struggle with PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks, hypervigilance, and dissociation.
Establishing a grounded presence with our bodily sensations can occur through different meditations and guided exercises that call attention to our internal ‘felt sense’. Some meditations and prompts may ask you to consider what internal sensations you might be experiencing in a given moment- notice the temperature in your body, muscle sensations, internal tensions or movements, and instinctual reactions. Feelings or sensations that can be felt include pressure, air movement, tension, pain, tingling and itch. Consider the size of the area being felt, the shape, the weight, the motion, speed, texture, element (earth, wind, fire, water), color, mood, sound, taste, smell and absence or nothingness. These examples have been inspired by a post on Peter Levine’s Felt Sense Exercise (link below).
From these experiences and awareness of these sensations, you may be encouraged to identify the feelings that surface and your comfortability or discomfort as it lives in different parts of the body and mind. One aspect of this activity is to become comfortable with opening yourself up to the information that your body holds. A body scan meditation may be a helpful way to draw attention to different parts of your body as you scan from your head region all the way down to your toes in a guided and structured way. A progressive muscle tension-relaxation guided meditation may also be helpful in understanding the energy and tension that may be stored in different areas of the body.
After one has completed a body scan or body awareness guided meditation, it may be appropriate to introduce the body outline as a visual aid in expressing what was sense and felt internally. Often words can be limited and it can be difficult to verbalize how something feels or where it is located or how the pain or sensation travels through the body. The body outline, which is a drawing or print out of an outline of a human body, is a foundation for individuals to draw, color, and express what is being sensed. Perhaps one’s anger is being stored in the cheeks as a burning sensation, so an individual may draw flames or use colors of yellow, red and orange to depict this on the body, while one’s hands may look like cold rocks.
To complete the body outline, one is encouraged to have a drawing or print out available and to color in the body, using markers or colored pencils, according to how each area is sensed. One may meditate on a certain feeling. For example, asking yourself internally where the feeling of “tension” is experienced. One can do this for a few different feelings, such as peace, fear, anger, sadness, shame etc. If a pain is sharp and shooting up one’s leg, perhaps a lightning bolt may be drawn in that area. If you choose, you can also add a ‘key’ on the side of your body outline that can serve as a way for you to organize your thoughts and explain the means for the different colors, patterns and symbols that you used.
The body outline allows an individual to visually observe their sensations externally and in a holistic way. My anger does not just impact my burning face, but impacts the tightness in my chest, the tension of my muscles and the churning of my thoughts. It also highlights that our emotions have a physical component. That we are not angry people, but we are people who experience anger in our body, thoughts and emotional state.
At times it can be challenging to be present in our own bodies, especially after having experienced a lived trauma impacting the physical body. The body outline provides a foundation for ongoing discussion and awareness of how one is experiencing their body.
Link to The Art of Healing Trauma Blog where you can find Peter Levine’s Felt Sense Exercise:
Link to a Body Outline Printout: