It’s a Tuesday night and I’m running on the treadmill, steadily climbing up what feels like a mountain, but is actually just a 4% incline. I’m no runner and, while I’m struggling, today feels no harder than any other day that I venture into the gym. I am panting a bit. My legs sting at their core. But I am coping; I am fine and bolstered by the satisfying thought of completing what I set out to do. Until, suddenly, I feel an all-too-familiar prick behind my eyes. I quickly catch myself. Am I about to... cry?
Inevitably, the prickles turn into trickling tears. I glance at myself in the gym mirrors in front of me and think about how ridiculous I’m being. I’m certainly not crying out of sheer exertion – I haven’t pushed my body to its physical limits; I’m not overcoming anything but my own reluctance to work out. I was just jogging up a slight incline in a former pyjama T-shirt that is living a second life as a gym top.
At first, this guttural reaction felt at odds with how I’d always viewed exercise – as a bit of a pain, but mostly as an all-natural antidepressant. While the post-workout release of endorphins helped to relieve stress and any anxieties that I’d been feeling that day, I’d always spent the actual gym sessions themselves tuning out of my mind and my emotions. This rush of emotions was highly unexpected, but after I’d subtly wiped my eyes, I didn’t feel distraught, I just felt. And, after, my head was lighter and clearer than before.
Rebecca Robinson, consultant in sports and exercise medicine for the Manchester Institute of Health & Performance, says that a release of endorphins can sometimes have unexpected results: “[Endorphins] are linked with feeling happy, but these powerful hormones can actually make you feel more emotional.”
Integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke seconds this, saying: “During exercise, areas that have become tight and stiff often get loosened up and released, and with that physical relief often comes an emotional release, too. This can manifest as tears, but sometimes as a feeling of lightness, even laughter.”
Since the first time this happened, at the start of the year, it’s happened a handful more times. Sometimes completely unwarranted, sometimes I’ve almost willed myself to find that place again, and I have found that particular workouts were more effective than others.
Our hips are where it is said that we store our deepest emotions – my yoga teacher told me that the hip-opening exercises are the most common ones to trigger tears
Burke agrees: “For me, it was yoga following the death of my dog. Our hips are where it is said that we store our deepest emotions – my yoga teacher told me that the hip-opening exercises are the most common ones to trigger tears.” Robinson also notes that in asana yoga, a cathartic emotional response is associated with making a connection between mind and body.
While yoga may be a common route to emotional release, mine is strictly cardio. I soon found that instructor-led sessions, like the popular spin classes at Psycle or the Reshape classes at 1Rebel, were also an effective gateway.
“For us, this is one of the most important aspects of the class,” says Rhian Stephenson, CEO of Psycle. “When you learn to tap into human emotions and can use them to motivate people, or change the way they experience exercise, they’ll not only be able to experience a far better physical workout but equally a more satisfying emotional release.”
At Psycle, the instructors aren’t just there to bark at you to pedal faster, they’re there to inspire you and to eke out an emotional response. Each class is peppered with words like “grateful” and “empowering” and, towards the end of the session, riders are encouraged to close their eyes and ride at their own pace for one song. While I’d count myself a cynic, with a preference for a good eye-roll in many facets of my life, Psycle manages to make the whole experience feel genuine.
“We have a significant focus on motivational coaching and how to tap into different emotions. We look for authentic instructors who have something to say – the riders need to be able to connect with what they’re saying and want to follow them.”
But is it just me who has felt the oncoming of tears? It appears not. “Spin crying is real! When you’re immersed in a class that’s taking all your concentration, all your effort, and is pushing you physically and emotionally – everything else drops away,” says Stephenson.
While, sometimes, I can definitely link this over-heightened sense of emotion to something in particular, a lot of the time I’ve felt overcome with it out of nowhere and, while at first I felt confused by this reaction and my own inability to pinpoint the root cause of it, I’ve now learned to embrace it and to see it for what it is: just feeling something.
“[When you’re exercising] there’s no room to focus on problems or stress so your body gets into this amazing state of flow where it can just let go of held tension… It’s incredibly common to have an emotional release when this happens. And it’s usually incredibly positive; it just comes and goes like a wave.”
While heightened emotions during a workout aren’t uncommon and can be by no means a bad thing, if it is continually happening Robinson advises re-assessing your overall stress levels and how hard you are pushing both your mind and body.
So, if you ever see someone stifling sobs while struggling on the treadmill, tearing up on a spin bike or visibly tapping into their emotions during yoga, then leave them to it. They’re just feeling something.