Originally published on October 6, 2020
The paradox of somatic mental illness
The term somatic mental illness, on the surface, doesn’t appear to make much sense. That’s because, if you look up the word somatic in the dictionary, you’ll find a definition that includes verbiage to the tune of, “Relating to the body and distinct from the mind.” This begs the question — what does somatic mental illness really mean, and can it even make sense based on standard definitions? Or, is this paradox just an irreconcilable oxymoron?
For starters, somatic mental illness is the term I use for anxiety or depression that starts in the body. After all, our minds and bodies are not fully separate or distinct entities — our mind-body connection holds them together in such a way that alterations to our physical state can affect our minds, and adjustments in what we’re thinking can affect how our bodies feel.
Thus, when I talk about somatic mental illness, what I’m really getting at is the phenomenon related to when you feel anxious or depressed inside your body before you feel the same way in your mind. Since we all experience both afflictions in different fashions, some of us may have experienced this sort of thing before, while some of us may not have. Either way, that’s okay — the goal here is just to bring the subject to light and give you some tactics for dealing with it, should you face it in the future.
The best example I can give of this sort of thing is when we feel tired as a result of a bout of depression. Now, of course, sometimes depression makes its way into our lives through various other means, but for now, I want to keep the focus on this somatic side of things.
Since sluggishness and lethargy are two common symptoms of depression, it’s really not uncommon for us to feel tired before we consciously feel depressed. The same sort of thing goes for anxiety. Our bodies can often fill with fear before our conscious minds do — it all depends on how we each normally experience either affliction as well as the degree to which the specific one we’re currently dealing with has infiltrated our mind-body connection.
The tricky thing about somatic mental illness is that, when it occurs, we often realize that our bodies are somehow off, but, since our minds haven’t quite hit the point of no return yet, we don’t always realize what it is we’re actually dealing with. What I mean by that is, we may feel physically tired or sluggish but not yet know that what we’re experiencing is the beginning of a bout of depression. Worse yet, these somatic symptoms sometimes trick us into getting in our heads and accelerating or exacerbating the process.
I’m sure you’ve experienced something like this before, even if you haven’t quite realized it. To keep with the sluggishness example, when we’re feeling this way, we sometimes ask ourselves, “Why am I so tired? What the heck is wrong with me? Am I ever going to feel energetic or alive again?” And with those questions, we enter the mental state required for a full-blown episode of depression — one that had already started on the somatic side, but that, now, is also in high gear on the mental side.
Again, the same sort of thing applies to anxiety as well. Sometimes our bodies feel heavy, tense, or on-edge. When we detect these sorts of physical changes, it’s not uncommon for us to jump into our heads and ask ourselves disempowering questions that cause our somatic anxiety to then bloom into the mental kind.
For example, we may ask ourselves, “Is something wrong? Am I getting sick, or is my body trying to tell me something?” These fear-filled questions kick our bodies into even higher gears, which causes us to then ask even further worry-tinged questions and keep the entire process going until we’re really and truly anxious.
But of course, somatic mental illness doesn’t always lead to full-blown anxiety or depression — just why is that? I’d say it boils down to one thing, and that thing is ignorance. Now, of course, we often use that word in a negative light, but here, I’m actually framing it as something good. That is, when we learn to tactfully ignore how our bodies are feeling in these situations, or at the very least, heed their signals and use them as motivation for doing something that will keep us out of our heads, we can avoid falling into the trap of letting somatic mental illness spiral into full-blown mental illness.
As you can probably imagine, there are countless ways by which we could do this. My favorite is to actually get back into my body. What I mean by that is, I don’t want to give myself an opportunity to get into my head. Though I’ve certainly gotten better at warding off anxiety and depression over the course of my life, I still know that my mind is not exactly my friend. As such, I don’t want to provide it an excess of time on which to chew things over. From my experience, that almost never ends well.
So, to get back in my body and ward off my psychological demons when I’m feeling the effects of somatic mental illness, I typically go for a run or lift weights. I realize this sounds super counterintuitive. When we’re physically tired as a result of depression, the last thing we want to do is get up off the couch and move around. But that’s also what we must do, for if we continue to sit on that couch, eventually, the lethargy will turn into mental chatter, and that chatter will cause our anxiety or depression to proliferate. In my mind, that’s a fate far worse than simply going for a tired lap around the neighborhood.
Now, it goes without saying that we can’t always drop what we’re doing at a moment’s notice and go running or hit the gym. Especially in the times of coronavirus, many gyms are still closed. And, even during regular times, we often have other commitments we must honor before we can get a workout in. But just because that’s the case doesn’t mean we can’t pause for sixty seconds and do a set of jumping jacks or hold a plank position.
Again, I know it might sound a little crazy, but this is the sort of thing we must do if we want to stop somatic mental illness in its tracks — we must break the bodily pattern and refuse to let what we’re feeling inside fester and spread to our minds. If we instead let that festering happen, we’ll be dealing with something much harder to ward off.
Thus, the next time you’re feeling anxiety or depression building inside your body, take it as a warning sign. Take it as a signal that it’s time to switch up what you’re doing and prevent those somatic symptoms from fully infiltrating your mind-body connection and bringing you down, emotionally, for far longer. It may not always make perfect sense, and it may not always be easy, but trust me — it works a heck of a lot better than trying to escape a full-blown anxiety attack or bout of depression.
Thanks for Reading! Want Even More Mental-Illness-Busting Strategies?
Then head on over to some of my previous articles on managing mental illness. Here are some of my most recent ones, if you’re interested: