Experiencing traumatic events doesn’t always leave visible scars. In some cases, they etch themselves deep within our nervous system, provoking defence and survival mechanisms such as anxiety that can persist long after the event itself has passed.
This persistent internal turbulence is more than just psychological; it’s somatic, rooted in the body. This happens because we don’t just process events mentally – we also live them through sensations, emotions, images, or implicit memories. Somatic techniques can help individuals reestablish a sense of safety and calm in their own body.
These exercises, grounded in the understanding of the body’s intrinsic wisdom, invite us to tune into our physical sensations and movements as pathways to healing.
In this blog post, we share eight somatic exercises that are specifically designed to alleviate anxiety. Each exercise will be accompanied by step-by-step instructions to ensure you can safely and effectively practice them at home.
Is Anxiety a Somatic Disorder?
Anxiety can also manifest in physical symptoms, but it is not classified as a somatic disorder. For instance, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is often associated with symptoms like restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and muscle tension (1). This is sometimes referred to as somatic anxiety or somatization. While these physical symptoms are very real, they originate from the individual’s anxiety and are not due to a separate physical disease.
It may be confusing to tell anxiety apart from a somatic disorder due to the shared symptoms.
Somatic Symptom Disorder (SSD), is characterized by excessive focus and anxiety about physical symptoms that cause significant emotional distress and problems with daily functioning (2).
In both cases, whether it’s an anxiety disorder with somatic symptoms or a somatic disorder, the person’s quality of life can be significantly impacted. The good news is that both types of disorders are treatable, often through a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy, mindfulness techniques, medication, and, in some cases, somatic exercises.
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What Are 4 Symptoms of Somatic Anxiety?
Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms of anxiety, which can manifest in various ways.
Here are four common symptoms:
- Restlessness or agitation: This could mean feeling “on edge” or unable to sit still. It can also involve a sense of discomfort or unease that prompts constant movement or fidgeting.
- Fatigue or increased tiredness: Despite not doing any physically exhausting activities, individuals with somatic anxiety might feel persistently fatigued or easily tired. This isn’t just regular tiredness; it’s a kind of exhaustion that doesn’t go away with rest or sleep.
- Muscle tension or pain: This involves persistent muscle discomfort, often in the form of stiffness or aches. The tension may be widespread or localized to specific areas like the neck, shoulders, or back.
- Difficulty concentrating or ‘brain fog’: People experiencing somatic anxiety often find it hard to focus or concentrate on tasks. They might feel as if their mind is ‘foggy’ or filled with cotton, making thinking and decision-making more challenging than usual.
Remember, everyone’s experience with anxiety is unique, and somatic symptoms can vary from person to person. If you’re experiencing these or any other troubling symptoms, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional.
Can Somatic Therapy Help With Anxiety?
Somatic therapy is an integrative approach to anxiety treatment that recognizes the profound connection between body and mind. This therapeutic approach was developed by researchers like Peter Levine and Stephen Porges, who observed that people responded to highly stressful events with somatic symptoms (8). It is based on the understanding that unresolved emotions linked to experiencing a traumatic event and/or stress can manifest as physical symptoms in our bodies.
By focusing on bodily sensations, rather than solely on cognitive processes, somatic therapy offers a body-centered approach to healing and wellness.
Research and clinical observations suggest that somatic practices can indeed be effective in managing anxiety (5). Here’s how:
Somatic therapy encourages a heightened consciousness of the body and its internal sensations (6). This helps individuals recognize the physical manifestations of their anxiety, such as a racing heart or tense muscles.
The techniques used in somatic therapy can reduce stress within the body (7), which is often a result of anxiety. This includes exercises that promote deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and grounding techniques.
Somatic therapy allows individuals to process unresolved emotions that are often stored in the body following traumatic events and enhance one’s ability to regulate emotions (4). This can lead to a decrease in anxiety symptoms as individuals learn to better self-regulate when encountering those emotions.
Somatic therapy emphasizes the connection between the mind and body through enhancing internal awareness of the body and its functions (4). By working on this interplay, individuals can learn to better manage their anxiety.
Through somatic therapy, individuals learn to self-regulate their emotional and physiological states, which can empower them to manage their anxiety more effectively.
Unlike cognitive behavioral therapies that work from the “top down” by challenging thoughts related to anxiety, somatic therapy works from the “bottom up” using the body as an entry point to explore sensations and related thoughts and feelings. It reduces stress and anxiety, through reconnecting with the body, regulating the nervous system, and processing underlying emotions. (3).
8 Somatic Techniques for Anxiety
Somatic exercises are body-oriented techniques that help manage and reduce feelings of anxiety. These somatic practices focus on creating a mind-body connection to help you become more aware of your internal sensations and emotions. These exercises can involve deep breathing, mindfulness, movement, and touch.
Some examples of these exercises include:
This involves placing your hand on an area of your body that’s experiencing a change or shift, such as tension or discomfort, and then breathing deeply.
- Identify an area of your body where you feel tension or discomfort.
- Place one or both of your hands on this area.
- Take slow, deep breaths, focusing on the sensation of your hand(s) against your body.
- Continue this exercise for a few minutes, or until you start to feel a sense of relief or relaxation.
Grounding essentially means tuning into the present moment and your immediate environment. By focusing on our physical sensations we can create a sense of safety and security even when anxious.
- Close your eyes and focus on the sensation of your feet against the ground or floor.
- Feel the contact between your soles and its surface, noticing how it feels differently in different areas of your foot.
- Imagine the ground or floor supporting you, like a solid foundation that can’t be moved.
- Continue this exercise for as long as you need to, concentrating on the physical sensation of your feet against the floor.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
This technique involves tensing and then releasing different muscle groups in your body to release tension and reduce stress.
- Start by tensing each muscle group for five to ten seconds, focusing on the feeling of tightness in your body as you do this.
- Slowly release the tension and relax each muscle group, noticing how it feels different from when it was tense.
- Continue this process with different muscle groups until you feel a sense of relaxation throughout your body.
The Voo breath involves taking a deep breath in, and then making a long “voo” sound as you exhale. The vibration created by this sound is believed to stimulate the vagus nerve, which plays a key role in the body’s parasympathetic nervous system – the system responsible for rest and digestion responses. Stimulating the vagus nerve can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and fear responses.
- Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Ensure your environment is quiet and peaceful.
- Close your eyes and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose. Try to fill your lungs completely.
- As you exhale slowly through your mouth, make a loud, low-pitched “voo” sound. Feel the vibration of the sound in your body, particularly in your chest and throat.
- Continue this process for a few minutes, or until you start to feel more relaxed and grounded.
Using gentle pressure on the skin can help reduce tension in our body and ease anxious thoughts or feelings. This doesn’t have to be a complicated process – it could simply involve rubbing your hands together, or caressing your arms and legs using slow, circular motions.
- Choose an area of your body that you would like to focus on.
- Gently massage the area using soothing circular motions with your fingertips or palms.
- Focus on the sensation of your hands as you do this, noticing the warmth and pressure.
- Continue this exercise for a few minutes or until you feel calmer and more relaxed.
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This self-soothing technique involves crossing your arms over your chest and lightly tapping your shoulders, mimicking the motion of a butterfly’s wings. The idea is to create a sense of safety and security.
- Cross your arms over your chest, with one hand resting on each shoulder.
- Gently tap the top of each shoulder a few times with your fingertips.
- Continue this motion for as long as you need to, focusing on the physical sensation of your hands against your skin.
Breathing exercises for anxiety are a great way to relax and reduce stress. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, is one of the most effective forms of deep breathing for reducing anxiety.
- Find a comfortable position to sit or lie down.
- Place one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest.
- Breathe in through your nose, ensuring that your stomach rises more than your chest.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing your stomach to fall. Repeat this for several minutes.
This particular breathing technique can be used to reduce feelings of breathlessness or shortness of breath, which is commonly associated with anxiety. It helps slow down our breathing rate and increase lung capacity.
- Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for two seconds, counting “one-two” in your head.
- Purse your lips as if you were blowing out a candle, and then exhale slowly for four seconds. Repeat this process for several minutes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can panic attacks result in somatization?
Yes, panic attacks can have somatic manifestations. This means that the anxiety and fear associated with panic attacks can cause physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, and trembling. These physical responses are the body’s reaction to perceived danger or threat.
What Is the Difference Between Somatic and Cognitive Anxiety?
Somatic anxiety refers to the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, and shaking. It’s the body’s physiological response to stress or fear.
On the other hand, cognitive anxiety refers to the mental or emotional aspects of anxiety, including feelings of worry, fear, or dread. These two types of anxiety often occur together, as mental stress can trigger physical symptoms and vice versa.
How Long Do You Do Somatic Exercises?
The length of time for doing somatic exercises can vary depending on the specific exercise and the individual’s comfort level.
For example, some exercises can be done in shorter intervals throughout the day. You may want to start off with short practices as your body’s ability to tune into bodily sensations increases. As you become more comfortable with holding more intense sensations, you can gradually increase your practice’s length. The key is to practice regularly and consistently for the best results.
If these feelings or emotions are significantly impacting your well-being, it may be helpful to seek guidance from a qualified somatic therapist or mental health professional for personalized guidance and interventions.
The Bottom Line
Harness the power of mind-body connection with these 8 somatic exercises. Each exercise comes with detailed, step-by-step instructions to help you effectively manage and reduce your anxiety levels. We encourage you to embrace a holistic approach to mental health and wellness.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (2022,nih.gov)
- Somatic Syndrome Disorders (2023,nih.gov)
- Somatic experiencing – effectiveness and key factors of a body-oriented trauma therapy: a scoping literature review (2021,nih.gov)
- Somatic Therapy: A Powerful Solution for Relaxation (n,d,mantracare.org)
- Effect of Somatic Experiencing Resiliency-Based Trauma Treatment Training on Quality of Life and Psychological Health as Potential Markers of Resilience in Treating Professionals (Frontiers Neuroscience, 2018)
- Body awareness: a an inquiry into the common ground of mind-body therapies (2011, PubMed Central)
- Stress management and relaxation therapies for stress disorders. APA PsychNet, 2002
- Polyvagal theory: A science of safety. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 2022