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What Are Somatic Responses and Why Do They Matter?

Leslie* experienced deep anger about being sexually abused She was angry about what had happened to her and her inability to fight her abuser. Ironically, Leslie’s anger was buried so deep that her feelings were subconscious. Rather than feeling outwardly angry about what had happened to her, she had trouble sleeping at night. Until Leslie became consciously aware of her anger and her defensive impulses, she couldn’t process them, and her insomnia persisted. Does anything about this story resonate with you?

We might have a tendency to think that our bodies function in a top-down way: our conscious minds tell our bodies what to do. The reality is that there is a lot of bottom-up activity, too: our bodies have a major impact on the way we think. Researchers have discovered that in trauma survivors in particular, bottom-up processing is common. For example, Leslie’s insomnia could be considered bottom-up processing. Her body is responding to trauma in a way she’s not consciously controlling. In extreme moments, bottom-up “hijacking” can occur. When hijacking happens, the conscious mind takes a back seat while the body sends the rest of the mind into alarm mode, even when there’s nothing to be worried about. This reaction puts both physical and emotional stress on survivors.

Many sexual abuse survivors experience physical manifestations of their trauma. Sometimes it’s impossible to arrive at a physiological explanation of what’s happening. For example, someone has insomnia but can’t figure out why, or someone has chronic high blood pressure without a clear reason. In other words, there are physical symptoms that can’t be fully explained by a medical condition. The technical name for these are somatic symptoms.

But how do somatic symptoms occur? Unfortunately, this is not a question that has an easy answer. Stanford neurology professor Robert Sapolsky explains, “We have come to recognize the vastly complex intertwining of our biology and our emotions, the endless ways in which our personalities, feelings, and thoughts both reflect and influence the events in our bodies.”

Here’s another way to think about all of this. Our brains have multiple ways of processing. One of those ways is through the physical body. This processing that focuses on physical sensations and impulses occurs in the lower levels of the brain in contrast to conscious, cognitive processing, which happens in higher levels. Your physical body might still be holding onto and processing trauma that you think you’ve processed on a conscious level. Put another way, there’s a lot of bottom-up processing.

So why does any of this matter to you? First, it might be worth exploring the possibility that the trauma from your past might be a factor in some of the physical experiences you’re having today. If you’ve had chronic health problems without ever finding a satisfying explanation, they could be linked to your trauma. Second, engaging your body to process trauma can be a key to healing. Consider seeking out a therapist who specializes in focusing on physical symptoms and sensations as a part of your healing. Here at The Younique Foundation, we often talk about the need for comprehensive healing, and we encourage you to focus on your body along with your mind.

*While Leslie’s story is real, her name has been changed for confidentiality.