How does it feel in your body when you’re anxious?

Anxiety isn’t just something you experience with your brain, your body is involved too.

You may be familiar with the physical side effects of anxiety, like headaches or other body aches, upset stomach, irregular heartbeat, and sweating. What we experience in our mind doesn’t just stay in our mind, because our mind and body are connected. This is the basis of somatic therapy, which can be a helpful therapy modality for treating anxiety. 

Stressed out woman grabs at her hair in frustration, stock photo.


The problem is that modern western culture encourages us to ignore messages from our bodies with the constant emphasis on doing – working, socializing, keeping up with the Joneses – rather than on being. The pressure to always be doing more and having more is distressing. 

This disconnect that many of us feel from our bodies can make it harder to cope when dealing with disorders like anxiety. The feelings that accompany anxiety can be painful, and avoiding feeling pain is something you may have done in the past, even subconsciously, to keep yourself safe. Unfortunately, avoiding the painful feelings can lead to even further distress down the road, and leave you feeling tense, on edge, and easily overwhelmed. 

What is somatic therapy?

Unlike traditional talk therapy, somatic therapy incorporates the body in treating mental health disorders like PTSD, depression, and anxiety, to name a few. The mind-body connection is well established in research, and scientists are learning more all the time about how this connection can impact us. 

Stock photo of relaxed, black woman meditating with eyes closed.

Somatic therapy can include talk therapy and mind-body techniques or exercises such as:

  • Meditation
  • Breath work
  • Visualization
  • Dance
  • Sensation awareness 
  • Grounding

These exercises are used in somatic therapy to help strengthen your awareness of the mind-body connection and to express emotions that are causing you distress. Incorporating the body into your work in therapy can help you develop awareness of both your mental and physical experiences with anxiety or other disorders.

How does somatic therapy help anxiety?

Anxiety doesn’t just live in your brain. You experience it with your whole body. Somatic therapy uses the mind-body connection to help you become more aware of body sensations and how to connect them to your emotions. When working with a somatic therapist to treat anxiety, your therapist will encourage you to practice body awareness instead of only focusing on your anxious thoughts. 

Connecting your thoughts and emotions to the sensations you experience in your body helps you build up an awareness of what feeling anxious truly means for you. Somatic therapy can also help you release your pent up emotions, so they don’t get stuck and continue to cause you distress. These pent up emotions often come out in moments when you feel triggered or overwhelmed, which is usually the last time that you want to experience something distressing. 

Stock photo of woman lying down with hands resting on her belly; only torso is visible.

What does it mean when an emotion is stuck?

When somatic therapists refer to an emotion getting stuck, they mean that this pent up emotion is keeping your nervous system stuck in survival mode. Instead of experiencing the emotion and moving forward, your body remains in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode.

When we’re in this state, our rational brains are offline. We’re running on survival instincts, and that’s exhausting. Our bodies are doing what they were designed to do – keep us safe, but the stress of being in survival mode constantly can do a lot of harm. 

Somatic therapy for anxiety will help you find ways to lower your distress level in your mind and body so you can leave survival mode and regulate your nervous system. 

Here are 4 somatic therapy exercises that you can try the next time you’re feeling anxious:

5-4-3-2-1 grounding

Grounding exercises are designed to help you get through upsetting situations by bringing you back to the present moment. Often, our thoughts run away with us in anxious moments, and it can be hard to interrupt your anxious thoughts. This exercise helps slow your mind down and reconnect you with what’s going on in and around you by engaging your senses. Here’s how you do it: 

  • Name (out loud or to yourself) 5 things you can see
  • Name 4 things you can touch
  • Name 3 things you can hear 
  • Name 2 things you can smell
  • Name 1 thing you can taste

Physiological sigh

Have you ever noticed how your breath changes when you’re anxious? Breathing is something that is automatic for us, so it can feel strange at first to focus deeply on it. Breathwork is a powerful way to drop into your body and slow things down in anxious moments. There are lots of different ways to use your breathing to connect back to your body. One that can be helpful for anxiety is the physiological sigh.

Stock image of woman relaxing in a park, lying down with one hand on belly and other on chest.

There is more than one way to practice a physiological sigh, here are a couple of options for you to try:

  • Take a deep breath
  • Exhale two times


  • Two quick inhales through the nose
  • One long exhale out of the mouth in the form of a sigh

Slowing down your breath is a way to bring your body out of survival mode and into relaxation mode by activating your parasympathetic nervous system.

Stock photo of Asian American doctor relaxing on the sofa after work.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This is another exercise that helps you refocus on the present moment instead of getting swept away by your anxious thoughts. It’s particularly helpful for anxiety because anxious folks often deal with muscle tightness and other tension around the body. Lots of times, we don’t even realize how tense we are until we find a moment where we can relax. 

Here’s how to do it:

  • Get into a comfortable position. We suggest laying down, but do whatever is comfortable for you. Give yourself about 15 minutes for this exercise. 
  • Starting from your feet up, inhale and tense one muscle group at a time for about 10 seconds. 
  • After 10 seconds, exhale and relax that muscle group. 
  • Take a short break to focus on what feels different after relaxing those muscles. 
  • Work from your feet up to your head, tensing one group of muscles at a time, making sure to inhale as you tense up and exhale as you relax. 

    Setting boundaries

    Learning how to set boundaries effectively takes practice. Exploring what boundaries feel like in your body, instead of only thinking about them, can be a helpful exercise. When you practice signaling a boundary in your body, you become more aware of what it feels like to express and enforce that boundary. It’s also important to recognize how it feels in your body when someone crosses your boundaries. 

    Lots of us end up agreeing to things we wish we hadn’t at some point or another, and it can be upsetting to realize you’ve crossed your own boundaries. As you practice exploring boundaries with a somatic therapist, you’ll get to know what a yes feels like for your body as well as what a no feels like for your body so it will be easier for you to understand what your actual boundaries are.  Here’s how to start:

    • Think of something that was upsetting to you in the last week or so. It can be something minor, like a roommate using the last of the milk or something serious like a betrayal. 
    • How did that feel in your body? Describe it in as much detail as you can – what feelings and sensations came up? Did the feeling or sensation have a shape or temperature? Was there movement? 
    • These observations can help you get specific about what crossed boundaries feel like in your body so you can recognize them when they come up in the future.

    Interested in working with a therapist who uses somatic therapy practices?

    Stella Nova clinician and somatic therapy specialist Charlene Dunkley is currently accepting appointments! Contact us to learn more about working with Charlene.

    Headshot of Charlene Dunkley, LCSW, a San Francisco therapist. Charlene is a Black woman with shoulder length dark brown hair and glasses.

    Somatic Therapy in San Francisco & Online Therapy in California

    Are you looking for support in exploring the mind-body connection using somatic therapy? Stella Nova offers online therapy for individuals and couples virtually throughout California, and in-person in San Francisco. Our team can provide therapy for depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, chronic pain, and more through a somatic therapy lens.

    We’re a BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned and operated clinic that strives to provide an affirming, safe healing space for every one of our clients.

    To connect with a somatic therapist near you, schedule a free, 20-minute consultation with our Intake Specialist, Cami.