The World of Work Project


Somatization is the process by which underlying emotional or psychological trauma and work related conditions like stress and anxiety may lead to physical ailments ranging from aches and chronic pain through to paralysis, fainting and memory loss.

Summary by The World of Work Project


Somatization is the name given to physical ailments that result from underlying emotional and psychological trauma. This trauma may also result in a range of mental distress, though it may not. Everyone experiences some form of somatization, but some people experience it in levels high enough for it to be debilitating.

Common causes of somatization in work include stress and anxiety, though there are, of course, many more causes. These mental conditions can cause body symptoms such as back ache, stomach ache, head ache, chronic fatigue, nausea or even chronic pain. Alternatively, neurological symptoms can occur such as: weakness, paralysis, dizziness, fainting, abnormal movements (akin to seizures), trouble with speech, tingling or numbness and memory loss.

Ailments like chronic back pain may be symptoms of mental conditions.

The World of Work Project View

The human body is a fantastic, complex and fascinating system that we only partly understand. It behaves in ways that sometimes seem highly unlikely. However, just because we don’t understand something, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Stress and anxiety are common in most workplaces. Individuals and leaders are increasingly aware of the more frequent physical, mental and behavioral signs of stress. Somatization, though, is perhaps less common and less well understood in the workplace. Essentially, somatization is simply a physical or neurological symptom occurring as the result of a mental condition.

The key point to remember here is that these are real symptoms. They occur because of mental conditions, but they are still very real and can be very debilitating. They can appear at all ages and are often the result of stress and anxiety. It’s often the case that the individuals who are experiencing these symptoms are themselves not really aware that they are the result of mental conditions.

In our view, it’s worth being aware of the phenomenon of somatization, though we’ve never knowingly come across it in the workplace.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on general reading though research done by BA Van Der Kolk, such as the 1996 article “Dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation: the complexity of adaptation of trauma.” may be a good starting point from which to learn more.


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