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Working Out Emotions, One Muscle at a Time

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When I think about carrying around emotional baggage, I rarely think about storing it in my shoulders, hamstrings, or lower back. It’s our minds—and metaphorically, our hearts—that are usually credited with housing our feelings.

But maybe it’s not so simple. As we run through the week, sitting hunched in front of the computer screen, facing work and personal stressors, perhaps our minds don’t always have the capacity to adequately deal with emotional turmoil. If not, where do the feelings go?

The Feelings Get Physical
“We often block trauma with the mind but hold emotions in the body,” says Karol Ward, a licensed psychotherapist, seminar leader, and writer who focuses on the importance of the mind-body connection. 

In other words, as the mind moves on, the body remembers.

This idea of “emotional armoring,” or holding emotions in the body, is based on work by the psychotherapist William Reich, who noted that he could see emotional release on his patients’ face. When people started to relax, they looked different.

This led him and others to look at the body, in conjunction with the mind, as a place where people store emotions.

Just as we can tap into parts of our psyche to address problems or concerns, we can also tap into our bodies to learn where we are storing emotions. This field of study, called body or somatic psychotherapy, focuses on movement, breath, and touch as a way of connecting ourselves to our bodies.

The results can be very powerful.

The Moves Might Soothe
Shortly after her boyfriend’s death, Amanda Coggin, a San Francisco-based writer, was in a small, intimate yoga class. While in the class, she listened to the teacher, who encouraged the participants to breathe deeply and try to clear their minds. As Amanda positioned herself in an asana, she felt an immense release. Suddenly, she said, “the tears just came.”

Unlike the emotional anxiety and knot-in-throat we normally feel before a big cry, Amanda said these tears were different; they felt more like a letting go than a working up.

As a runner, I wondered whether the same results could be acquired through activities that didn’t require you to contemplate your navel. Karol feels they can. 

“It’s a matter of asking yourself, what does my body want to do? Some people need more activity and your movement should match your emotional state. Running, walking, kick boxing—all of these can help you release the emotion.”

I thought back to the last time I kick-boxed. Indeed, punching a bag as hard as I could was quite a cathartic experience, even if there were no tears.

Let Me Hear My Body Talk
But perhaps we don’t always need to be in a yoga class or punching a bag to connect with our body. Ward is working on a new book, entitled Find Your Inner Voice, which teaches people, especially women, how to use their bodies as a compass.

By paying attention to physical clues—an uneasy feeling in your stomach, a tightening of the chest—our bodies might be hinting at things our minds are still trying to grasp. This is the familiar idea of “women’s intuition,” something many of us have experienced.

Rather than ignoring the skin-crawling feeling we get after the initial handshake on a bad blind date, Ward encourages us to pay attention to these physical sensations.

In addition to hitting the treadmill or doing a downward dog, what else can we do to achieve this mind-body connection?

The most important thing, according to Ward, is to focus on our breath. Like in meditation and yoga, breathing can help to center and relax us. Take in five deep breaths, and as you’re exhaling, allow whatever sounds you feel to come out as well. (Perhaps it’s best not to do this at the office.) Next, try to move in a way that corresponds with your emotions, be it stretching, swimming, or dancing. Other important components of tuning into the body are touch—from massage therapists, ourselves, or professional healers—and the old stand-by, talking. By confiding in a trusted friend, we can help explore our feelings and intuitions and learn to explore them deeper.

While I have yet to notice any big emotional releases during my runs, I continue to lace up my shoes—and pay attention to my gut.

Related Article: Body Mind Matters: New Beginnings, Part One

Updated November 18, 2008


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