The Importance of Embodiment for Understanding Mental Health

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Issues around embodiment and mental health are interesting and complex. On the one hand we have evidence that suggests a link between certain forms of mental health challenges and biological processes[1]. On the other hand, it is clear that many mental health challenges are the product of our relationships and our encounters with our environment. I imagine that causality probably lies in some combination of both depending on context and circumstances. However, because of the powerful cultural voice that science has, there is an ever-present temptation to focus our gaze on the biological dimensions of mental health challenges and assume that the other dimensions are important, but perhaps secondary. This can be a problem for the church insofar as it may feel that it has nothing unique to offer to the complexities of the embodied dimensions of mental health care. It can also be a problem for the mental health professions if they become overly dependent on pharmaceutical technology as their primary response to distress. In this short article I will present a way of thinking that might help us avoid such temptations and discover ways in which the church and the mental health professions can come together with mutual understanding and shared healing practices. Let me begin with Martha’s story.

Martha lives with major depression. Depression is one of these words that we overuse. We wake up on a Monday morning and feel “depressed” about the beginning of the week. We experience disappointment and we feel “depressed.” If we overuse a word it loses its power. When we encounter real depression something quite different emerges. Martha described her depression in this way: “It’s like falling into an abyss. It’s seriously nasty. When I am down there, I look up and sometimes I see light but most times I see . . . nothing. The walls of the abyss are lined with slippery stuff that means I can’t climb out. All I can do is wait to be rescued.”[2] By “rescue” she did not mean that she simply wanted someone to come and sit with her and show solidarity in her suffering. She did want that, but she needed something else: medication. Medication got her on the first rung of the ladder that would take her out of the abyss. It was not the only thing she needed, but it was something she needed. She recognized that some kind of chemical change was necessary but would not be sufficient. If, as she emerged from the abyss, she was to encounter loneliness, alienation, or a lack of friendship, resulting in a deep lack of self-worth, the pharmaceutical intervention she received would result in only partial healing. Medication could get her on the ladder to recovery, but she needed community to truly find healing. The gift the church brings to the mental health conversation is crucial: the provision of a vision of hope and a body of people who love Jesus, embody hope, and will sit with one another even amidst the most difficult storms.

Understanding “The Body”

In teasing out such a statement it will be helpful to ask the apparently obvious question: what is a body? Bodies are complicated! By that I don’t simply refer to complexities of our biology. I also refer to the complexities that arise when our biological bodies enter into society and meet other bodies. A helpful guide on our journey is the philosophical theory of phenomenology.[3]

Within this way of thinking, we are urged to put to one side our normal assumptions about the thing we are looking at and to try to understand the thing-in-itself. With regard to Martha, we might put to one side our “normal” theoretical assumptions about what depression is and really listen to her story as it is, before we overlay it with our cultural assumptions and understandings of and assumptions about diagnosis, treatment, and so forth. When we do that, we begin to hear what her experience feels like from her perspective as she lives into it, as opposed to reflecting upon it from a distance. As we listen carefully to her story, our options for response expand: she does need medication, but above all else she needs a form of love that can sit in silence in the darkness and wait.

Phenomenology provides us with a different way of thinking about our bodies. According to this way of thinking, we might view the body as having two dimensions. These are described as the material body and the lived body.[4] Of course, these are just conceptual distinctions. We are both. But it is nonetheless interesting and helpful to reflect on these two dimensions of the body in relation to the issues we are discussing here. The material body is the physical, individual body that includes our genes, our chemistry, our flesh and bones. The lived body relates to what happens when our flesh and bones encounter the complex vicissitudes of the world. As the material body moves through the world it encounters a variety of experiences, positive and negative, some of which are formative. It is in the interplay between the material and the lived body that we become the people we are.

We might clarify this point by using the analogy of the body of a ballet dancer. The material body comprises the muscles, bones, flesh, tendons, and neurological structures that enable the body’s complex movement. The lived body of the dancer is related and connected but different. The material aspects of the dancer are shaped and formed by their emersion in and practice of historical and contemporary dances and dance techniques combined with the intimate mirroring of other dancers who shape and form their bodies through mentoring and imitation. The lived body of the ballet dancer is a corporate body. What is true for the ballet dancer is true for us all in various ways. Our bodies are shaped, formed, and sometimes deformed by our encounters with the world. However, they are also cared for, loved, and re-formed by our positive encounters. Noticing this opens important space for the ministry of love that is central to the mission of the church. The Body of Christ is called to engage with the lived bodies of broken people and in so doing offer hope, healing, and love.

Approaches that concentrate solely on the material body and the ways in which, for example, pharmaceutical technology can impact upon that body are obviously important. Martha wants to get out of the pit; she doesn’t only want someone to sit with her (although she does want that). She does need certain kinds of chemical change in her body. But, such change is not enough. A focus on the material body will help deal with material things, but a focus on the lived body opens us up to see the importance of relationships, community, spirituality, and love. The idea of the material and the lived body helps us avoid the allure of the medical fix and opens up space for Christians and Christian community to offer its vital healing gifts.

The Church as a Healing Community

It is important to be clear here what I mean by the term “healing.” I don’t mean curing. When the church gets involved with mental health professionals, one of the things that it brings is a different understanding of health and healing. The Bible doesn’t have a word for an understanding of health that is determined by the absence of symptoms or disease. Instead, we find the term shalom (Judg 6:24; Eph 2:14). Shalom at heart means peace, but it is a big peace. It relates to peace with creation, peace with one another, peace with one’s self, and ultimately peace with God. The core meaning of the term shalom is justice, righteousness, and right relationship with God.[5] To be healthy is not determined by the presence or absence of symptoms, but by the presence of God. Within this understanding one can be fully fit psychologically and physically, and yet be unhealthy. Likewise, one can be going through difficult times and be fully healthy as you come to recognise the presence of God. Importantly, recognising the presence of God is not the same thing as feeling it. The task of the church is to help people to recognise and hold onto the presence of God even when someone can’t, at that moment, feel it for themselves. Recognising and feeling are not the same things. One of Martha’s most difficult experiences was that sometimes she felt completely disconnected from God. This was hard for her. God promises never to leave us (Deut 31:8) and yet she sometimes feels abandoned. How can we understand shalom in her life?

The first place we might look for an answer to such a question is within the psalms of lament. These psalms are full of cries of disconnection. Some of the lament psalms end in praise, others just stop dead: “Darkness is my only companion” (Ps 88:18, CEV). The second place we might look is in the words of Jesus’s cry from the cross that echoes Psalm 22, another lament psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, ESV). These are pain-filled passages, but it is important to note one thing. They are not expressions of doubt. It is not that God no longer exists (although it may feel that way). The psalmist’s cry is a prayer to God. Jesus, who is God, cannot be separated from God. Jesus’s cry is to God. Both feel distanced from and abandoned by God, but still cry to God. This is profoundly important for Martha’s shalom. When Martha feels that distance, when she feels abandoned, Jesus is there, because he has been there. She may feel abandoned by God, but Jesus holds her shalom until that time when she can once again feel it. Jesus becomes the one who sits in silence in the darkness and waits.

This helps us understand the meaning of the healing that comes with the idea of shalom-as-mental-health. Healing is connection. It is, however, a mode of connection that is not dependent on our own ability to feel it, but on the surety that Jesus holds that connection for us even in the midst of our wildest storms. When our material bodies take us to an emotional place where we feel disconnected from God, Jesus, in and through the people of God, keeps us connected, or perhaps better, holds our lived bodies’ connection until we can connect on our own. That is at least partly what we mean when we talk about the church as a healing community.

So, what might this look like? It looks like the Body of Christ. Elaine can help us here. Elaine lives with severe depression. She loves Jesus, but struggles in worship when she is unwell. When everyone around her is happy, singing, dancing, she feels even more broken and alone because at that moment she can’t feel these things.

Our church is . . . charismatic, evangelical. And so there’s a lot of happy- clappy- ness, which when you’re depressed and crying, is just awful. Yeah, yeah. But I mean Sundays in church were excruciating—just turn up, worship, listen to the preacher, and then run away. Or cry during the ministry time. Just dealing with people was so overwhelming.[6]

Elaine doesn’t want people not to be happy and not to celebrate their experiences of the presence of God. She just needs people to recognise that her experience is real, important, and that she remains a valuable member of Jesus’ body, even though, at certain moments in time, she can’t feel the way others do. She needs a Christ-like community—the Body of Jesus:

But then saying that, actually it was also really helpful to be in a congregation of people who were still worshipping God, still being happy-clappy, still being hopeful when I was just like this, I just can’t do this. Because it meant they were like “well you can’t do it, but we can do it for you.” Which I just really appreciated. People would be standing alongside me in prayer; like during the worship time they’d have a hand on my shoulder while they were just fully, singing, worshipping, and rejoicing. And I was just a wreck, crying, but I found that incredibly profound because it’s that sense of someone’s willing to be alongside me, and yet they were not forgetting the truth that I couldn’t grab a hold of at that point.[7]

Elaine needs a community that can hold her joy for her until she can pick it up for herself. She needs solidarity and understanding made manifest in Christ-like friendship. Such friendship respects all the diverse embodied experiences of God’s people and strives to worship together even in times of deep distress. Such a community recognises the material dimensions of depression and the importance of the healing gifts that mental health professionals bring to her experience. Alongside of such expertise, this community seeks to ensure that the lived experience of depression is a space for love, compassion, understanding, and healing. When we get this right, people like Martha and Elaine can find a space of rest and healing. When we get this right, people can be helped to hold on to Jesus even in the midst of the wildest storms.


[1] “What Are Bipolar Disorders?” American Psychiatric Association, 2021,

[2] Martha’s story emerges from a research project carried out by John Swinton between 2015 and 2019. This is part of an unpublished transcript. Appropriate ethical permission to use this has been provided by the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.

[3] Phenomenology is a philosophy of experience that assumes the source of all meaning and value is found in the lived experience of human beings.

[4] Maren Wehrle, “Being a Body and Having a Body. The Twofold Temporality of Ambodied Intentionality,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 19, no. 3 (2020): 499–521,

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Peace (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001).

[6] John Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 85.

[7] Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm, 87.