Stress and Somatic Experiencing

somatic experiencing

Most people have experienced stress. It occurs in everyday life, from small things such as being stuck in traffic to bigger things such as financial worries or relationship difficulties. No matter the cause, stressful situations can stack up and be difficult to manage – but somatic experiencing can help.

Stress: Signs, Symptoms, and Causes

Stress can be defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

It can be experienced as an individual, for example, when someone has a deadline at work or is dealing with big changes in their life, and it can also be experienced as a group, such as if a family is going through a challenging time financially. Even happy events, such as planning a wedding or having a baby, can be stressful.

Although stress is not a mental health condition, it can contribute to anxiety and depression. Mental health conditions can also cause stress, as people may find their symptoms difficult to deal with, and managing medication and therapy while trying to work or take care of a family can be challenging.

Everyone can be affected by stress, regardless of their situation or circumstances. However, some people are more likely to be affected due to prejudice and discrimination, such as ethnic minority groups or the LGBTQ+ community.

There are many signs behavioural and emotional signs of stress, including:

  • Feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Increased irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Withdrawal from family and friends

Stress can also have many somatic symptoms, including:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Indigestion and heartburn
  • Unexplained aches and pains

Research has also linked excessive stress to conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and stomach issues. It can also impact the heart, causing cardiovascular problems and heart disease, and raises the risk of panic attacks, major depression, and concentration.[1]

Managing Stress with Somatic Experiencing

Not all stress is traumatic, but stress can still affect people physically, similar to how trauma can. Chronic stress that is experienced over several months, or even years, can build up within the body and cause physical health problems that have no one cause.

Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr Stephen Porges, explains why stress can produce many somatic symptoms. The theory defines three critical developmental stages of response in humans:

  • Immobilisation – known as the oldest pathway, people respond to fear by freezing and becoming immobile, sometimes becoming numb and shutting down.
  • Mobilisation – governing the fight-or-flight response, the mobilisation response helps people to escape from potentially dangerous situations.
  • Social engagement – engaging with others helps people to feel connected and safe, which helps them to recover from the immobilisation and mobilisation stages.

When people are under stress, Polyvagal Theory suggests their mobilisation and immobilisation responses can be activated, and people may respond like they are in real danger. Even if they are physically safe, this response can be distressing. This energy can remain trapped in the body, especially if people freeze and cannot do anything to escape from or reduce their stress, potentially leading to somatic symptoms.

Somatic Experiencing can help to release this tension, reduce symptoms, and help people manage stressful situations more effectively. Developed by Dr Peter Levine, Somatic Experiencing releases trapped tension from the body and helps people connect to their internal experiences.[2]

Chronic stress can hinder the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems from returning to their baseline states. This is another potential cause of the physical symptoms of stress, as when the nervous system is active and alert, it can hinder the body’s ability to relax.

While developed for trauma treatment, Somatic Experiencing can help manage stress levels and provides several easy and accessible exercises that anyone can do, including:

  • Grounding exercises – grounding helps to anchor people to the moment, allowing them to focus on the present rather than past or future concerns. People can ground themselves in many ways, such as running cold water over their hands and wrists, focusing on breathing, and tensing and relaxing different parts of the body.
  • Body scanning – body scans are a form of meditation that can help people focus on the sensations they feel in their bodies. It involves lying down and noticing different temperatures, sensations, and tension that might be held within the body. Combined with deep breathing, body scans help to promote greater relaxation and bodily awareness.
  • Resourcing – resourcing creates a safe space in the mind, allowing people to turn inwards in stressful moments. It can involve remembering happy memories, envisaging people they feel safe with, or picturing a safe, comfortable environment.

Exercise and mindful movement can also help with stress. Yoga encourages mental and physical relaxation and helps people release tension from their bodies, which can help release negative emotions. There is a lot of evidence demonstrating the benefits of yoga for stress, including one study from 2018, which linked three yoga sessions per week for four weeks to reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.[3]

Stress affects everyone differently, but somatic exercises and experiencing can help. Taking a few moments when stress becomes too much can help bring it back down to manageable levels; however, mental health and well-being can suffer when it is overwhelming. If you find that stress is becoming unmanageable, do not hesitate to reach out for professional assistance.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling with anything you have read in this blog, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).


[1] Glise K, Ahlborg G Jr, Jonsdottir IH. Prevalence and course of somatic symptoms in patients with stress-related exhaustion: does sex or age matter. BMC Psychiatry. 2014 Apr 23;14:118. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-14-118. PMID: 24755373; PMCID: PMC3999732.

[2] Payne P, Levine PA, Crane-Godreau MA. Somatic experiencing: using interoception and proprioception as core elements of trauma therapy. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015;6.

[3] Shohani M, Badfar G, Nasirkandy MP, Kaikhavani S, Rahmati S, Modmeli Y, Soleymani A, Azami M. The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women. Int J Prev Med. 2018 Feb 21;9:21. doi: 10.4103/ijpvm.IJPVM_242_16. PMID: 29541436; PMCID: PMC5843960.