Instead of acknowledging, processing and releasing unpleasant feelings, the societal trend these days seems to be to bottle them up. We think that we always have to keep moving; that to take time for ourselves is to be weak. We think that we are better off ignoring our emotions; that to disregard them is to make them go away.
Truth be told, no amount of denial can ever solve the root issue. To cast our feelings aside is to keep ourselves stuck in an endless state of stress and discomfort.
Psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker Sean Grover has made a career out of studying where these repressed emotions go. In his research, Grover found that different emotions tend to manifest themselves physically in distinct parts of the body. This phenomenon is called “somatization”—the tendency to experience psychological distress in the form of physical symptoms. These bodily signs are referred to as “psychosomatic symptoms,” which are caused or aggravated by mental factors like internal conflict and stress.
Of course, not all pain and discomfort experienced in the body are psychosomatic. But as Grover studied his clients’ bodily responses to stress, recurring patterns became apparent. It seemed as though certain repressed emotions, when transformed into bodily responses, were present in the same locations—time and time again.
As you’re reading this article, keep in mind that psychosomatic reactions are neither a neat nor a precise science. So much of how the body responds to stress depends on the individual. The list below is best used as a general introduction to psychosomatic symptoms, from which you might resonate with some, and not with others.
Lower Back: Anger
The lower back is a common place for the body to store repressed anger. If you’re experiencing back pain, with no obvious cause, it may be the result of your emotions. For long-term relief, learn to work through frustration and address conflicts as they arise.
When you’re afraid, your stomach and intestines tend to tense up. That’s how we get phrases like “I’m sick to my stomach.” The more you repress fears, the more physical reactions you’re likely to experience. When unnerved, it’s much better to acknowledge your distress and talk it out with a loved one or write it down in a journal. Grover explains, “The more you can express the fear in words, the less of a hold it will have on your body.”
Heart and Chest: Hurt
Yes, it seems like you can actually feel a broken heart. Physically. Some of Grover’s clients found that after releasing their pain, like crying when hurt, the tension in their chests would finally lift—even when no doctor, no medication, could do so before. If heart and chest pain have no obvious source, the discomfort could be psychosomatic.
Headache: Loss of Control
You can’t control everything in life. In fact, trying to do so might even make you feel worse emotionally—and give you splitting headaches. Letting go and accepting what is out of your control might relieve this unpleasant symptom.
Neck and Shoulder Tension: Overwhelming
If you suffer from neck and shoulder tension that has no apparent cause, it’s likely that you’re feeling overburdened. Tightness in the neck and the shoulders are one of the most common psychosomatic symptoms of stress. To mitigate the pain, pay attention to what you can and cannot handle. Don’t be afraid to say no, ask for support, or share responsibilities with others when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Your body will thank you.
When you hold onto bitterness and anger, chances are that you do more damage to yourself than to the people you resent. This animosity stresses your entire body, keeps you from living in the moment, and makes you extra tired. By focusing on those who wronged you, you exhaust yourself for no good reason at all. Instead, try to concentrate on forgiveness or moving forward.
People tend to numb their feelings when an event is too overwhelming. When we don’t process our memories in the mind, our bodies can become paralyzed in the face of pain or danger. The best way to work through trauma is to acknowledge it first so that you can then proactively process the painful emotions.
Insomnia: Unease with Change
Life-changing events—both good and bad—can have dramatic impacts on your sleeping habits. It’s common to feel the strain when your life is in continuous change: during times of stress or even times of essential personal growth. Learn to work through change, by writing about it or talking with a friend, rather than repress your aversion to it.