Have you ever had a profound emotional experience during your workout and not understood why? Here’s a scientific look at what’s behind exercise-induced emotional release and what it may be telling you.
About 20 minutes into Renee’s yoga regular yoga class, tears suddenly began streaming down her face. Although she’d practiced yoga regularly for 25 years, this was the first time she had experienced anything like this. “The best way I can describe it is that someone turned on a faucet that I couldn’t turn off,” she says. “I wasn’t sobbing, but the tears kept flowing for a half hour.”
Renee was embarrassed but didn’t feel she should leave. “I somehow knew that this needed to come out and I didn’t want to stop the process in midflow,” she says. What needed to come out was the fact that her father was dying, and for the past six months Renee had felt compelled to remain strong and “together” for her family.
In that yoga class the floodgates opened and she finally dropped her guard, fully feeling all her grief about her father’s illness. Renee lost her dad four days later, and although the finality was hard to take, she still felt like a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders during that tearful yoga session. “After that class, she says, “the heaviness was gone, and I didn’t feel the need to sob anymore. I felt so much lighter in spirit. I guess what it boils down to is a physical release for an emotional need.”
Renee’s close encounter with her emotions while doing yoga is not uncommon. “I wouldn’t say it happens every day, but emotional release does happen in my classes with both men and women,” says Jaime Stover Schmitt, EdD, author of Every Woman’s Yoga: How to Incorporate Strength, Flexibility, and Balance Into Your Life (Prima Publishing, 2002). And yoga isn’t the only form of exercise where people experience emotional breakthroughs. “I have a female client who broke down crying one day after an intense set of weight training,” says personal trainer Steve Zahn. “It turned out that things weren’t good at work and she didn’t want to face the fact that she needed to change jobs,” he says. “She knew it somewhere deep down inside but was just too scared to admit it – until her workout helped her open up her feelings about the issue.”
Many of us can relate to the “endorphin high” feeling associated with intense exercise. Certainly there’s plenty of research showing how exercise can improve mood, relieve depression and reduce anxiety, notes Kate Hays, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Move Your Body, Tone Your Mood (New Harbinger Publications, 2002). In fact, the uplifting effects of physical activity are so powerful that progressive therapists like Hays often include it in their treatment for clients. But in stark contrast to what we most often equate with exercise, emotional release can also free feelings of frustration, confusion, fear, anger, pain, sadness or loss that seem to come from deep inside the psyche.
While resolving issues that have long weighed you down is ultimately a mind-expanding, life-enhancing experience, the initial flood of feelings can be a little unnerving, to say the least. All the more reason to look closer at what causes this emotional release, what it may be saying about your life, and how you, like Renee, might embrace this experience, using it to attain insights and to work through deep-seated challenges.
Does Your Body Store Emotions?
After 23 years as a personal trainer, Rudy Hayek, owner of RH Fitness Consulting, Inc., in Arcadia, Calif., says he’s seen numerous examples of emotional release in both men and women in conjunction with a variety of fitness contexts. One characteristic of this exercise-induced emotional phenomenon is consistent, though: Whether the release comes during weightlifting, jogging or yoga, says Hayek, “this is not a conscious decision. These feelings seem to come from somewhere deep inside and take people by surprise.” In response, some people laugh, some cry, others get angry. Still others have an “aha!” emotional insight with a resulting flood of thoughts.
So what’s really happening here? Is it possible that exercise somehow accesses suppressed feelings that your body has warehoused for processing at a later time? It may sound somewhat radical, but the concept of “storing” emotions is commonly accepted among many bodywork practitioners like massage therapists, acupuncturists and chiropractors.
John Upledger, DO, OMM, founder of craniosacral therapy (a gentle type of bodywork that concentrates on the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord) and the Upledger Institute in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., subscribes to the notion that our bodies store emotions in the form of “energy cysts” – similar to the body’s biological defense mechanism of walling off intruder substances like bacteria that cause disease.
The theory goes something like this: When an accident or trauma occurs, the energy from that event enters the body. This external, disorganized energy – the energy of injury – can be forced into the body through either physical or emotional trauma. If your body is unable to dissipate this energy, it isolates and compresses it into a small, localized energy cyst, effectively storing it for later processing.
Originally, Upledger’s technique, called somatoemotional release (“soma” refers to body), focused on unleashing energy stored as the result of physical injuries. But as time passed, he found that patients also often experienced simultaneous emotional releases during treatment, and sometimes these were accompanied by vivid memories of an injury or trauma. He posits that perhaps the energy being released during treatment contains a certain emotional “signature” (acquired from the injury experience) and that this information is set free when an energy cyst is broken up.
Of course, somatoemotional release is a form of bodywork. How does this technique apply to exercise? In his book, SomatoEmotional Release: Deciphering the Language of Life (North Atlantic Books, 2002), Upledger describes a discovery that may answer that question. Working with patients, he found there were precise therapeutic positions that facilitated the release of energy cysts. It seemed that positioning the body to mimic the original position of injury aligns tissue fibers in a way that allows the escape of this disorganized energy.
In Upledger’s view, it’s these therapeutic positions that free up physical and emotional restrictions. Practitioners of other forms of soft-tissue bodywork, such as Orthobionomy and Trager, base their work on similar principles. But think about how many diverse ways your body moves when you are exercising. During a workout, you may achieve ranges of motion and joint angles that fall far outside your habitual daily patterns. Could it be that exercise inadvertently approximates these therapeutic positions and assists the release of stored energy? Such a phenomenon could explain why emotional release is so common in exercise like yoga, where your focus is inward, movement is slow, and your range of motion greatly exceeds average daily activities.
Emotion and the Brain
Such possibilities are intriguing, yet most conventional scientists are more than a little uncomfortable with the notion of energy cysts and therapeutic positioning to free up stored emotions. After all, it’s difficult to study this sort of phenomenon under the controlled conditions normally required for clinical research. Emotional release can’t be produced on command when the scientific watch is ticking, and everyone’s experience is unique. Still, even those researchers looking at the experience through a laboratory lens admit it’s tantalizing enough to consider.
“We don’t have clinical brain studies explaining how and why emotional release happens, but we do know enough to make some educated guesses,” says Bradley Hatfield, PhD, a professor in the departments of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland. “And we do have the brain architecture for the idea of stored emotions.”
Hatfield is referring to the amygdala – a part of the brain associated with many emotions – and the hippocampus, which houses memory. These two structures are part of the limbic system, commonly referred to as the “center for emotion” or the “emotional brain.”
“The limbic system is very close anatomically to another area called the brain stem, which receives a lot of feedback during exercise,” says Hatfield. “Specifically, the reticular formation that is part of the brain stem receives considerable stimulation from muscles.”
The reticular formation is the area of the brain responsible for your sleep/wake cycles and level of alertness, explains Hatfield. The feedback from muscles is why exercise tends to make you feel more alert and aware. Given its close proximity to the brain stem, the limbic system or emotional brain may also be stimulated during exercise, Hatfield says.
John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of A User’s Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain (Vintage Books, 2002), says that exercise does, in fact, activate part of the limbic system. “Aerobic exercise is the single best way to increase levels of a biochemical called BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, in the hippocampus,” he says. “And BDNF helps to protect and produce nerve cells involved in memory. It’s so powerful that I like to call it Miracle-Gro for the brain.
“We’ve been thinking about BDNF in terms of long-range effects on the hippocampus and memory, particularly in laying down new memories,” Ratey adds. “But it’s possible that exercise could also improve your ability to access or retrieve memories using this same mechanism.”
A Chemical Connection
If activity in certain brain structures represents the clinical big picture, or “macro-view,” behind emotional release, then what happens at a biochemical level is considered the “micro-view.”
Really, most experts see it as an interconnected process. Mark Hyman, MD, codirector of medicine at Canyon Ranch Spa in the Berkshires and coauthor of Ultraprevention: The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life (Scribner, 2003), describes it this way: “Your biography is your biology manifested as your biochemistry, and exercise definitely affects your biochemistry.” What Hyman means is that the story of your life is manifested through your body, and that any part of that story may be actively expressed biochemically – via various hormonal profiles – at any moment in time.
Your personal “story” includes all your beliefs, behaviors, experiences, feelings, diet, exercise or lack thereof. Everything gets stored as cellular experience, whether it’s an immunological memory, neurological memory or muscle memory. “And those memories can be unwound,” says Hyman.
In Hyman’s view, it is this unwinding of repressed or stored emotions that results in emotional release. And science may now have a foothold in explaining how this happens biochemically. In her book, Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine (Scribner, 1999), Candace Pert, PhD, describes what she calls the “fundamental chemical components of emotion.” Pert, a physiology and biophysics professor at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., says that on the most basic level, there are two types of molecules that work together to create emotions: peptides and peptide receptors.
Peptides are the chemicals or “information substances” that carry molecular messages to receptor cells. Peptide receptors are sense organs, much like your eyes, nose, tongue, fingers and skin, only on a cellular level. They’re found in cell membranes and act as scanners, waiting for the right peptide to bind with. Once a receptor receives its marching orders from a peptide, it sends the commands on to the cell interior where a chain reaction of biochemical events begins.
Think of the process this way, writes Pert: “If the cell is the engine that drives all life, then the receptors are the buttons on the control panel of that engine, and a specific peptide is the finger that pushes that button and gets things started.” At the cellular level, these alterations are minute, but they translate to large changes in behavior, physical activity and even mood.
Pert believes that repressed emotions are stored throughout the body (not just in the brain) by means of peptides and that memories are stored in peptide receptor cells. In fact, it’s the emotional release through bodywork that she sees as direct evidence of emotions being repressed and stored in body tissues. Liberating these feelings through touch or other physical methods results in clear internal pathways and a sensation you experience as an energy release.
Scientists don’t know for sure how exercise clears emotional pathways, but Janice Urban, PhD, associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, offers a few possibilities. Just like your car’s performance is dependent on unobstructed gas lines and plenty of petrol, Urban says, “Emotional expression is linked to the free flow of peptides. But when peptide flow is restricted, emotions can be suppressed.”
In other words, it seems that emotional release is more likely with a steady stream of these information substances. The interesting part is that Urban believes that exercise increases the release of peptides. So it’s not that far of a leap to see how working out may serve as a peptide catalyst to unlock repressed emotions.
An Impetus for Change
Whether scientists ultimately discover that exercise and emotional release are linked because of how certain brain structures work, or that the connection is caused by specialized biochemicals, or both, one thing is for certain – unleashing repressed emotions can be a life-altering experience.
“Prior to an emotional release, clients say they feel a heaviness or tension that weighs them down and saps their energy,” says Judith Orloff, MD, energy psychiatrist and author of Positive Energy: 10 Extraordinary Prescriptions for Transforming Fatigue, Stress, and Fear into Vibrance, Strength, and Love (Harmony Books, 2004). She uses the term “energy scars” to describe emotional damage that goes unresolved but explains that once the energy scar is repaired, everything changes. “People feel lighter, like they’re finally free,” says Orloff.
The healing benefits don’t stop there. “I’ve had clients with irregular heartbeats that cleared up once they released unresolved emotions,” she adds. “Chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia improve. All sorts of stress-related symptoms like headaches and backaches disappear. Ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome heal, and the list goes on.”
Free from emotional baggage, you may find the strength and courage to make dramatic life decisions, like a change of career. Or, like one of Hayek’s clients, you may be inspired to remake yourself from the inside out. “One of the most powerful examples I’ve seen was a woman named Cindy who hired me as her trainer after the birth of her second child,” he says. “She wanted to lose 80 pounds and run a marathon.”
A few weeks later, on what was supposed to be Cindy’s longest training run to date, repressed feelings began to percolate to the surface. “She had a rough personal life, years of self-esteem issues, and basically she was afraid to push herself beyond where she knew she could go,” Hayek says. “On that training run, Cindy began to cry. So we slowed to a walk. She talked and I listened. Once these feelings came out, she felt like running again, so we did.”
A year later, and 70 pounds lighter, Cindy completed her marathon – this time with tears of joy as she crossed the finish line.