By Autumn Irons
She suffers frequently from headaches—not every day and not always at the same time, but often enough that it is concerning. She tells trusted family members and friends that she occasionally has chest pains and trouble falling asleep at night. She thinks that her fatigue must be because she keeps going to bed at a later time than she had planned.
He goes to the doctor due to constant abdominal pain and indigestion, but his results indicate that his body is perfectly healthy. He often comes home from work exhausted, even to the point of dizziness. He’s gone to the chiropractor several times in the last few months due to neck and shoulder pain, which helps for a little while…but then the pain returns.
Both individuals have tried all sorts of methods to relieve them of their physical pains and discomforts—everything from visiting a doctor to home remedies—yet nothing seems to be helping for the long term. Why is that?
Our bodies are wonderfully complex and specifically designed to not only keep us alive, but also to help us be aware of internal problems through external means. What some may not realize is that our physical symptoms are not always the result of an illness or disease or the consequence of unhealthy habits or choices. Sometimes our body will speak to us regarding deeper, hidden issues.
When an individual who is otherwise healthy begins to experience constant ailments of various kinds and the cause is unable to be determined, that may be a signal from your body shouting, “Hey! Pay attention to this!”
It is intriguing to note that our physical state may be altered by our emotions—and our emotions can be influenced by our physical condition. When body functions change due to our emotions, this is known as a “somatic response.” All of the physical symptoms listed above are examples of somatic responses to anxiety (Gelenberg, 2000).
One might be tempted to say, “Well, I usually know when I’m worried about something. I don’t need to pay attention to my physical condition to tell me that!” This is true; most of us are aware of when we are stressed because we are able to pinpoint the stressor.
However, we also have a tendency to try to contain unpleasant emotions, to bottle them up or ignore them, in order to be able to function on a day to day basis. We are physically capable of exhibiting all of the signs of anxiety without being consciously aware that we are in fact anxious.
This is because the body and mind work in tandem. We have the ability to choose what we will focus on. Let’s say you are really hungry—your stomach is gurgling, thoughts of yummy foods keep popping in your head, your mouth is salivating. Yet you have an important task, such as studying or a work project, which you are trying to complete before you allow yourself a break to eat some food. As you continue your work, your body is still gurgling and grumbling because it is telling you that it needs nourishment, but your mind is able to ignore it for the present to focus on the matter at hand.
Sometimes body will communicate with you, even in painful or inconvenient ways, to let the conscious mind know that there is a problem. If you continually store up overwhelming emotions such as stress and anxiety, then your body may manifest physical symptoms in order to bring to light that there is something straining your system. Think of it like this: your subconscious is like a balloon you are trying to fill up with water. If you keep adding more and more water to the already full balloon, at some point it will not be able to take it any longer and the balloon will burst. Your emotions will come spewing out like a geyser and you may unfortunately drown some unsuspecting loved one in the surging wave of your feelings.
Of course not all physical symptoms stem from underlying emotional struggles and we should be mindful of our health condition when we start to experience new ailments. Yet it is important to consider if perhaps there could be an internal, subconscious cause behind the external issue.
Here are some tips to help you try to determine if your physical symptoms are somatic responses to stress or anxiety:
- When you feel a symptom coming on, such as a headache or chest pain, take note of your surroundings and current situation. Are you at work and you’re currently trying to meet a deadline for a big project? Are you studying for an exam? Did you just have a fight with your partner or children? Does the thought of having to complete a certain task make your stomach feel queasy or make your chest feel tight?
- Keep track of how often you experience the same symptoms and what you are doing before you experience them. Having a record could be beneficial when speaking with a healthcare provider if you are seeking treatment, either in a medical or therapeutic setting.
- Once you are aware of your triggers, prepare helpful coping strategies in advance. If you find that you typically experience indigestion and dizziness prior to giving a presentation, take a quick walk outside before the meeting or have a mint ready. If you have to prepare for a commute that gives you a migraine or makes your shoulders tight just thinking about it, put together a playlist of music you like or play an interesting audiobook. When you can plan ahead to avoid stress and anxiety, you are able to establish a sense of control over your body and thus the circumstances you find yourself in.
I once heard someone jokingly say that if they were feeling pain, they were alright with that because it meant that they were still alive. If you are feeling pain, either physical or emotional, just know that it means you are still alive and that you have been given another day to find hope and healing. At times, our anxiety can catch us off guard and we may be tempted to think that we are powerless against it. There is always a way out—it may just require a little bit of creativity and a lot of patience and grace towards yourself to see that next step clearly.
If you are experiencing symptoms that are causing you concern, we suggest that you reach out to your doctor to share your concerns and to rule out any underlying medical conditions. Your doctor can help you to explore if medical treatment, medication, therapy or lifestyle changes could be helpful for you.
Gelenberg A. J. (2000). Psychiatric and Somatic Markers of Anxiety: Identification and Pharmacologic Treatment. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 2(2), 49–54.
Autumn Irons is a graduate of George Fox University with a B.A. in Psychology and hopes to become a licensed professional counselor in the future. Autumn currently works as an Administrative Assistant at Newberg Counseling & Wellness. On a more personal note, Autumn greatly enjoys the finer things in life: good strong coffee, homemade chocolate chip cookies, her faith, family and friends.