Somatic anxiety is a type of generalized anxiety that’s common among people who experience chronic stress. It manifests as an aversion to any bodily sensations or physical reactions, such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, or nausea. Somatic anxiety often results from the feeling that one’s body isn’t functioning normally—or perhaps, it’s not functioning at all. Whether the source of stress stems from external sources (e.g., social situations) or internal ones (e.g., self-doubt), somatic anxiety can cause you to feel like you don’t belong and that no one understands you. For some people, this fear can also stem from feelings of inadequacy in relation to one’s own body and/or the bodies of others.
These feelings may result directly from activities in which you were encouraged by other people and/or direct feedback from others about your body image (e.g., weight-based teasing). Or they may come from more abstract negative thoughts about your own body image that are based on past experiences but haven’t been processed yet (e.g., if only I could change my appearance). The worry that your body is not normal can make it difficult for you to feel emotionally connected with your own sensations and responses in everyday situations. Fearful ideas about your physical self may also lead you to avoid or try to ignore certain bodily sensations when possible.
What Causes Somatic Anxiety?
Various factors, including low self-esteem, past experiences with physical or sexual abuse, and perfectionism, can cause somatic anxiety. A person struggling with a mental health issue may also experience somatic anxiety as a symptom of their condition. The majority of people who experience somatic anxiety have experienced some type of trauma or trauma-related stress as a child or young adult.
This type of anxiety can be caused by past experiences of sexual or physical abuse, bullying, bullying led by others, neglect or abandonment, or any other type of trauma that caused you to feel fear or pain.
Signs and Symptoms of Somatic Anxiety
The signs and symptoms of somatic anxiety may include:
- Persistent fear or anxiety about one’s physical self, sensations, or physical reactions to certain situations.
- Aversion to or avoidance of any bodily sensations or physical reactions.
- Persistent worry that one’s physical self isn’t normal or is somehow flawed.
- Difficulty focusing on one’s own thoughts or feelings.
- Difficulty regulating emotions (lack of “self-soothing”).
- Avoidance of activities that require physical movement.
- Avoidance of physical contact with others.
- Feeling like no one understands the way that one’s physical self feels or operates.
Strategies for Managing Somatic Anxiety
Managing somatic anxiety can be a difficult task, but it’s not impossible. With the right strategies, you can learn to cope with the physical symptoms of anxiety and find relief. The first step is to identify the physical sensations you experience when you’re feeling anxious. It might be tightness in your chest or a knot in your stomach - whatever it is, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge it. Once you know the signs of anxiety, you can start to work on calming them.
This could be through techniques like deep breathing, relaxation exercises, or meditation. It’s also important to develop healthy coping strategies to distract yourself from the physical symptoms. This could be anything from reading a book to talking to a friend. Finally, it’s important to remember that the physical symptoms of anxiety will pass. Reminding yourself of this can help you to manage the anxiety more effectively and reduce the intensity of the symptoms. With these strategies, managing somatic anxiety can become easier and less overwhelming.
Somatic anxiety can be a tough condition to manage, but it can be manageable with the right approach. Remember that your physical self is worthy and valuable and that you don’t need to be perfect at any one thing. Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up when experiencing somatic anxiety. Discard any negative ideas about one’s physical self. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or professional about the ways that one feels. Focus on activities that bring joy and connection with others. Develop a mindfulness practice to help train the mind to pay attention. Somatic anxiety is treatable, even if it’s been with you for a long time. If you’re experiencing it, work to identify what factors are contributing to it. Then, work on managing your stress in healthy ways so that you can feel more in control and gain perspective on what’s happening around you.