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Q: Lately, I’ve found that I cry uncontrollably in the car on the way home from the gym after really tough workouts. Is this normal or hormonal, or am I just losing my mind? Is there a link between physical exertion and emotional release? Any insight would be helpful!
A: Yes, dear reader, there absolutely is a correlation between physical exertion and an emotional release. Probably the most common and relatable example is runners who experience the “runner’s high,” when their endorphins are pumping and they’re on top of the world. Your reaction is quite literally the opposite but is no less valid.
There’s a branch of medicine called body psychotherapy (or somatic psychotherapy) that maintains that the body holds onto feelings even when you believe you’ve dealt with them and moved on.
“When you experience an emotion that you cannot express, such as anger at a loved one, your muscles contract against that energy and the emotions get ‘locked’ in your muscles,” says Beth L. Haessig, Psy.D., president of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. Physical muscular tension (or other reactions such as shortness of breath, insomnia and lack of concentration) is created as a result of this contractile reaction as your body defends itself against the effect of that emotion.
“When you fatigue the muscles, as with exercise, they stop pushing out these experiences and actually allow the energy to flow better through your body so you start to experience the emotions that have been locked away,” Haessig says.
Case in point: your postworkout crying jags. Movement of any sort — running, strength training, dance — allows your brain to loosen up as well as your muscles and enables you to focus on something other than your daily life stressors. Your brain lets its guard down and is able to safely tap into emotions that you might usually keep close to the vest. “The body is always in the present moment, while often the brain is focused on the past or the future,” Haessig says. “So for example, your body is here right now at the gym, but your brain may still be in yesterday’s fight with your spouse. But movement brings you into the present because you need to focus in order to move.”
Yoga class is notorious for unleashing emotional reactions, and certain poses unlock tense muscles and cause the waterworks to gush forth. Is this a physical reaction to the stretching of your muscles and releasing of tension, or is it more mental, as when you lie in shavasana and contemplate life, love and the ever after? Perhaps it’s a little of both, but what’s certain is that the physical reactions divined from yoga and other forms of exercise are real and are experienced deeply by the participant.
It’s safe to say then that, yes, exercise is a kind of therapy, but real therapy is sometimes in order. Depression and anxiety are powerful disorders, and it might not be a bad idea to consult a professional if you continue having these bouts of sadness. You might need a little “you time” to be kind to yourself and give yourself a break. There’s a saying: “People cry not because they’re weak but because they’ve been strong too long.” Perhaps it’s as simple as that. Best of luck.