When Emotional Distress Becomes Physical Pain

When Emotional Distress Becomes Physical Pain

Have you ever felt a knot in your stomach during moments of stress, or a sudden headache when things seem overwhelmingly out of control? It's not your imagination playing tricks on you. It's your body signaling that your emotional distress has manifested into physical pain. This phenomenon is known as somatic pain. It's a tangible representation of the intricate link between our minds and bodies.


What is Somatic Pain?

Somatic pain arises from the body's tissues, including muscles, bones, and joints, but it's often triggered by emotional factors rather than physical injury. It's your body's SOS signal, indicating unresolved emotional issues need your attention [1]. This type of pain can vary in intensity and location. And often eludes traditional medical explanations and treatments.


The Physical Symptoms of Emotional Distress

Steven He Emotional Damage Steven He GIF [Digital Image]. (2021) from Tenor.com

Our bodies and minds are not separate entities. They are interconnected systems that influence each other in profound ways. Emotional pain, such as stress, anxiety, or unresolved trauma, can lead to physical symptoms, including:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Stomach aches, nausea vomiting
  • Fatigue, dizziness, memory loss
  • Weakness and/or numbness
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing
  • Sudden change in vision, blurriness

These symptoms are your body's response to the "emotional information" stored within, as negative emotions, particularly, have a lasting impact on our physical well-being [2].


How Emotional Pain Becomes Physical

The process of emotional pain manifesting as physical discomfort is a survival mechanism. Our ancestors relied on this response to danger, where fear or stress would trigger a physical reaction, preparing them to fight or flee. In modern times, though our threats are less about physical danger, our body's reaction remains the same, storing emotional trauma in our organs, tissues, skin, and muscles until we find a way to release them [3].


The 90-Second Window to Emotional Liberation

Emotions, when embraced with an open mind, can serve as profound teachers. Anger, for instance, signals where our boundaries have been breached, urging us to fortify them. Sadness reflects our core values and desires for connection and love. Intriguingly, the physical sensation of stress hormones, triggered by negative emotions, lasts for about 90 seconds. This brief window is often overlooked, yet it holds the key to preventing years of stored emotional trauma.

Many of us attempt to sidestep this discomfort. We resort to rumination, cling to toxic positivity, or seek escape through numbing substances. I, too, was guilty of intellectualizing my feelings. I often buried them under a facade of "everything is fine." This denial only left me at the mercy of unprocessed pain.


Somatic Symptoms and Related Disorders

Somatic symptom disorder occurs when a person experiences intense and excessive distress or anxiety about physical symptoms such as pain, which results in significant problems in daily life. It's a clear indicator that our emotional health directly impacts our physical health, underscoring the need for holistic treatment approaches [4].


My Encounter with Somatic Pain

I'll never forget the night somatic pain introduced itself to me. It was an ordinary evening until a piercing pain in my back made lying down unbearable. The pain escalated, my breath shortened, and panic ensued. Was it a heart attack? The severity of the pain even led to vomiting. This was my body's way of signaling that the stress from a toxic work environment had become too much to bear. So it turned my unaddressed emotional turmoil into physical pain.


Treating Emotional Pain to Ease Somatic Symptoms

Addressing somatic pain requires more than treating the physical symptoms. It involves healing the emotional wounds at its root. Techniques such as therapy, mindfulness, meditation, and in some cases, medication, can be effective in treating the underlying emotional distress, thereby alleviating the physical symptoms [5].

I've found personal solace in an unexpected form: dancing it out. Yes, inspired by the countless “dance it out” scenes in Grey's Anatomy, I discovered that this simple act carries profound therapeutic benefits. It turns out, moving your body freely to music can be a powerful method to release pent-up emotional tension and stress.

Ballerina Dashcam GIF [Digital Image]. (2019) from Tenor.com

This concept isn't just for TV drama; it's rooted in science, known as therapeutic or neurogenic tremoring. Coined by David Berceli, PhD, this approach involves shaking or dancing the body to release tension and trauma, helping to regulate the nervous system [6]. So, when Taylor Swift sings about shaking it off, there's genuine wisdom in those pop lyrics. Embracing this method, I've experienced firsthand how transforming emotional pain into physical movement can pave the way for healing and relief from somatic symptoms.


When to Seek Help

Recognizing the signs of somatic pain is crucial. If you find yourself experiencing unexplained physical symptoms alongside emotional distress, it may be time to seek professional help. Therapists, especially those specializing in somatic therapy, can offer strategies to process and release the stored emotional trauma, leading to relief from somatic pain.


Emotional Distress Can Become Physical Pain

Somatic pain serves as a reminder of our body's incredible ability to communicate its distress in the absence of visible injury. By tuning into these signals and addressing our emotional health, we can unlock a path to holistic healing. Remember, acknowledging the pain is the first step towards recovery, and seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.



[1] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (n.d.). Physical Symptoms of Emotional Distress: Somatic Symptoms and Related Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Physical_Symptoms_of_Emotional_Distress-Somatic_Symptoms_and_Related_Disorders-124.aspx
[2] Verywell Mind. (n.d.). How Emotional Pain Affects Your Body. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/physical-pain-and-emotional-pain-22421
[3] Community Services. (n.d.). Where Is Trauma Stored in the Body?. Retrieved from https://www.communityservices.act.gov.au/children-and-families/adoption-kinship-and-foster-care/therapeutic-resources/where-is-trauma-stored-in-the-body
[4] Hindawi. (2018). Where Is Trauma Stored in the Body?. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/prt/2018/4316234/
[5] Psychology Today. (2018). When Psychological Pain Becomes Physical. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201812/when-psychological-pain-becomes-physical
[6] Healthline. (n.d.). Can Shaking Your Body Heal Stress and Trauma? Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/can-shaking-your-body-heal-stress-and-trauma