somatic expressions of trauma

Anxiety is a bio-physiological response of the body to threat. In other words, a somatic response, coming from the threat perception system in our brain (the amygdala).

This threat is subjective and in response to feelings spawned from an event that does, or appears to, endanger human connection. We were created to be in connection. Without relationships as babies, we wouldn’t survive. As young children, a lack of attachment to our parents and caretakers creates stunted development and tragic suffering. As adults, if forced to live alone on a deserted island, we would find ourselves forming a fast friendship with Wilson and crying with wrenching sobs when Wilson floats away unexpectedly.

Anxiety and Childhood Attachment Injuries

Consider the intense suffering that a baby or child endures if his or her parents (close caretakers) do not provide the necessary connection that creates the ability to self-soothe, to have a stable nervous system, and to create a healthy sense of self. This sort of enduring threat creates a lot of internal anger (which we feel guilty over, because it is dangerous to feel rage towards a caretaker) AND puts the threat perception system in our brain on overdrive. The amygdala grows larger, while the emotional center of the brain, the hippocampus, grows smaller. The likelihood of our perceiving a threat now goes up exponentially. (This is why you will hear me say a million times that trauma is of the body, and is a physiological injury, not a mental illness.)

Fast forward to adult life and relationships. Any event (perceived or real) that threatens a current relationship will evoke anxiety (and maybe anger) through our threat perception system, due to stored memories of deprivation from the past.

Anxiety and Somatization (Body Activation)

This anxiety is experienced as either tension in the large voluntary muscle groups (striated muscles), activation of involuntary muscles (smooth muscles), or activation of the autonomic nervous system and leads to corresponding somatic (body) symptoms, and in some cases cognitive disruption (thinking, sensation, and perception.)

For example, say someone says something annoying to you, but instead of feeling irritation towards that person, you feel anxious and get a tension headache, which is a sign of striated muscle anxiety.

Smooth Muscle Anxiety

Did you know that smooth muscle anxiety is triggered by self-punitive talk?

Studies like (Abbass, 2015) show a correlation between complicated emotions concerning loved ones, a tendency towards self flagellation and smooth muscle anxiety. Beating yourself up, talking unkindly to yourself, calling yourself names, putting yourself down, being over critical, or wishing harm on yourself leads to activation of the smooth muscles.

By the way, are you like I was? I felt so much guilt over my anxiety and self-hatred, that I repressed it. It was there, causing me a lot of health problems, but I wasn’t consciously connecting the things going through my head, like, “You are so stupid. You cannot do anything right!”, with the mess my body was in.

Is is anxiety, or is it really anger?

As I have advanced in my understanding of trauma and my own somatic trauma therapies, I have come to see that self-flagellation is really an anger problem. As I experienced hurt and pain in relationships, instead of dealing with that person and situation directly and wisely, I would turn all that anger on myself. I learned early and often that I was not allowed to have a voice, and if I somehow earned permission to speak, it had better be a submissive squeak, not an expression of my deeply held and rightfully felt rage over the terrifying torture I was enduring. I come to realize that I had been punished for having emotions (and resulting somatic manifestations). These emotions are not scary, bad, or dangerous, as I had been brainwashed into thinking. Through somatic therapies and parts work, I learned that I could replace fear and guilt over these emotions with self-reflection, openness and even comfort, which mimics the outcomes of the Abbass, 2015 study.

So as you can see, the effect of childhood trauma is multilayered. This is why it can take 2 or 3 years+ for somatic therapies to uncover and process all of the layers of memories, negative self connotation, misconceived thinking and negative emotions and rewrite the scripts. And above all, regulate the nervous system.

Smooth Muscle Anxiety in Short

Harsh Thoughts & Internalized Anger = migraine, stomach aches, nausea, IBS

Striated Muscles

Striated muscle tension due to unconscious anxiety manifests through hand clenching, sighing, and even hyperventilation. You may complain of panic attacks, chest pain, headache, fibromyalgia and other musculoskeletal complaints.

Can You Relate?

Are you aware of this trauma manifestation in your body? Have you made the connection between hypervigilence and chronic muscle tension? How would this knowledge change the conversations you have with your medical team? Are they aware that this is trauma stuck in your body?

I’d love to know how armoring has affected your health and well being. 

trauma healing starts here - leave a comment


  1. Abbass, A. (2002) Office based research in ISTDP: Data from the first 6 years of practice. Ad Hoc Bulletin of Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy, 6, 5-14.
  2. Abbass, A. (2015). Reaching through resistance: Advanced psychotherapy techniques. Kansas City, MO. Seven Leaves Press.