something strange happened
January 4, 2021 8:53 AM   Subscribe

We recently set up a punching bag in our basement. I used it for the first time yesterday and something odd happened to me. I'm not sure why. Can anyone help me figure this out?

I suffer from bipolar depression and anxiety, among other things. My therapist, who specializes in DBT, reminded me that vigorous exercise can be beneficial for both. All of the gyms in our area are still closed, so my boyfriend and I got a punching bag and installed it in our basement. I used to take boxing classes and my form is pretty good, but I haven't boxed in over a year.

I decided to do a quick boxing workout yesterday and after about 2 minutes, I was crying. But paradoxically, it felt really good to be hitting the bag, so I kept going and eventually I was sobbing hysterically and screaming at the top of my lungs - mostly wordless yelling but the occasional "Fuck you" and other insults directed at people who have harmed me in the past. After about 20 minutes of that, I was totally spent. I sat down and kept crying for another ten minutes, then went upstairs to lie down for a while. I cried a little more and then I calmed down.

I'm not sure why this happened. I never used to cry during my boxing classes. But even as I was howling with tears running down my cheeks, the workout felt really good. I spent the rest of the day in a sort of daze - feeling very mellow and content, but quiet and not really interested in speaking or engaging with my boyfriend or watching TV or a movie or anything. Just very subdued. This morning, I woke up feeling a little down, but after a shower and my morning meds I feel okay.

This experience is very puzzling to me. I want to keep boxing (especially since it's an indoor activity and I live in a part of the world where winter is here and going outside to run or jog is difficult) but I don't know if I can handle continuously working out in a way that makes me cry for nearly an hour and scream at the top of my lungs (not to mention I am a singer and I shouldn't be screaming at all) and then be quasi-catatonic for the rest of the day. Is this a common reaction to this kind of aggressive workout for people with mental illness? Is this a one off occurrence due to the stress I've undoubtedly been carrying in my body from the general state of the world these days? I've been googling and while I find a lot of articles about how boxing can be helpful for depression and anxiety, I can't find anything, even anecdotally on like Quora or Reddit, that indicates others have experienced this intensity of emotion while boxing. Can any of you help me figure out what happened? Is it safe for me to continue this form of exercise or will this do more damage to me in the long-term?

I know YANMD, YANMtherapist, YANMpsychiatrist, etc etc. Thanks.
posted by nayantara to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I have had this type of reaction from doing yoga. Something about the physical release triggered an emotional release as well. It was intense but ultimately cathartic and did not happen every time. Sounds like you needed that.
posted by impishoptimist at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2021 [23 favorites]

Best answer: I think this is a big part of the reason why home punching bags are so popular.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:16 AM on January 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I used it for the first time yesterday and something odd happened to me. I'm not sure why. Can anyone help me figure this out?

From your description, it seems to me that the punching bag was functioning exactly as designed.

I would expect future workouts to decrease in emotional intensity over time. In any case, doing a few more sessions as an information-gathering exercise seems to me highly unlikely to do you any harm whatsoever.
posted by flabdablet at 9:34 AM on January 4, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: that's catharsis. can be distressing in the moment. It feels great afterwards and is good for releasing pent up "stuff." Very healthy to do it on a punching bag rather than in a way that harms others.

maybe we all should get punching bags
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2021 [18 favorites]

fingersandtoes has perfectly described your experience. The bag, and your brain, seem to be working exactly as designed.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2021

Best answer: Amelia and Emily Nagoski, authors of Burnout and the Feminist Survival Project, describe this as "completing the stress cycle". To hear them talk about this, why it happens, and how to work with it, check out their podcast -- especially episode 1 and episode 2.
posted by kitarra at 10:14 AM on January 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

It's the endorphins released during the exercise triggering emotions within you, and crying releases endorphins as well. You've kept it bottled up for so long, social propriety and all that, that you need some sort of a release. That's why there were those "wrecking rooms", where you basically pay $$$$ to go into a room and wreck it for therapy. Same idea with the punching bag. Trigger endorphin release one way will often lead to endorphin release of a different way. The idea is to relieve the stress you're under, and it seems to have worked splendidly.
posted by kschang at 10:21 AM on January 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed with others, it should decrease over time. For me running sometimes triggers it, punching a bag or doing kick combos less but certainly can.

If you have PTSD, complex grief, or c-PTSD in your diagnosis list it's common enough that my staff have some protocols for if our martial arts students end up in that space - it's not like, an every month thing, but it happens, and it's not in my male-dominated academy's perception anything bad, just something some people go through. In some sparring spaces it's more people who can't stop fighting, you may have seen that?

I agree that it generally decreases over time. For me what happened after maybe 3 runs like that was I learned the point at which the exercise was moving in that direction and I could either slow down, or lean into it.

If you're worried about the screaming, you can do some quick work with a plastic bracelet you can snap (be careful about choosing one that'll be ok boxing and can be cut off). Give yourself a 'time to stop screaming' phrase like "okay, shhh, it's okay" and practice telling yourself that a few times a day with a snap of the bracelet. If you find you can't stop, try snapping the bracelet. (I am not neurotypical but this technique worked well here in the past, so hopefully it works for you.)

For the "flashback hangover" as I call it, again this becomes easier to manage over time but for me it did take maybe 3 months? to shorten it. So I exercised (still do sometimes) strategically - later in the day, before a weekend, before a specific soothing event, etc.

It feels out of control and scary but for me anyway, that ability to (just saw above) 'complete the cycle,' what a great phrase, has given me so much back.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:21 AM on January 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some massage and kinesiology frameworks call this catharsis or emotional release. It's annoyingly difficult to google because catharsis is also a psychological terminology and there are also catharsis exercises so trying to limit your search to the effects of physical movement doesn't help. "Crying during exercise" churns up a lot of woman-oriented hooha that only briefly pings of the fact that it's an endocrinological response and not just that the gym makes you sad or that women should only do introspection while multitasking.

Anyway, I know about it because of some massage therapist friends who see it all the time. Clients will be like "I don't know why I'm crying, I was just thinking about lasagna for dinner. I like lasagna!" and it's just biological.

It can, obviously, also be emotional, but if you experienced this in a very not-linear-progression fashion it was probably just that you got your body moving and firing off hormones.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:25 AM on January 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

The body stores trauma and if we’ve ever been in a traumatic situation where neither fight nor flight was an option then we froze. In which case we never got to fully release the trauma energy and it stays stuck in your system. Sounds like you finally tapped into a trauma point and could finally “fight” to defend yourself. 💗
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:53 AM on January 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would assume you got a hormonal rush from punching - like maybe adrenaline - and it triggered a body memory of a previous experience when you also felt an adrenaline rush but that time you repressed the associated emotions because you didn’t feel safe.

This time you had a similar surge, and because you knew you were safe, you let out some of the stored-up emotions from last time.

This kind of emotional release can happen with massage, breath control, sex, and exhaustion, too. And stretching, especially deep groin stretches.

I’m glad you had that experience! I see it as a healthy thing and over time I would expect the intensity of those reactions to decrease as you release the emotions.

Might help to do some journaling or therapy in parallel with the intense workouts to help you figure out what emotions are surfacing and really get to the bottom of them.

A good rule of thumb for this kind of thing is that anger is not usually the true emotion- anger is the shield that protects vulnerability, fear, sadness, etc- so if what’s coming out feels like anger, you could consider digging deeper to find the root.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:24 PM on January 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

Is this a one off occurrence due to the stress I've undoubtedly been carrying in my body from the general state of the world these days?

I don't know if it's one-off, but I think you're exactly right about the rest. I think you had all this stress (physical, emotional, mental) bottled up and you gave it a chance to be released. I don't think the exercise generated or created this emotion, but it was there already.

I never used to cry during my boxing classes.
It was a different time, but, probably more significantly, you were in semi-public, in a class with others. Likely you wouldn't let yourself relax and express all this in quite the same way if you weren't in private in your own home.

I can see why this felt great and also a bit scary. I'd wait a day or two (are you sore at all today?) and then give it a try again and see how it feels.

As for crying during exercise: when I was going through an incredibly stressful time several years ago, I would sometimes find myself in the middle of the woods on a long trail run with tears streaming down my face. It didn't happen every time, and I can run that same or similar route now and not have the same experience. So this happening one time doesn't mean it'll happen every time.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:50 PM on January 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is a thing that happens. I used to get it sometimes during martial arts classes, and when I was a kid I would start crying running sprint races for the track team. If you just let it happen and express the emotion, it will taper off and it probably won't happen every time you try to do your workout. I think it's good for us to get stuff out this way, especially if you are at home in private and can do whatever you need to do without fear of embarrassment.
posted by zdravo at 1:17 PM on January 4, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all! This makes a lot of sense. Would love to understand more about the biological/endocrinological factors that make this happen.

I am SO SORE today. So sore. But in a good way - that way where you know you actually worked your muscles properly.

I do have C-PTSD - warriorqueen, I'd like to hear more about the protocols your staff have in place when it happens at your facility, just for curiosity's sake.

Thanks again everyone. I'm glad to know that this is A Thing and I'm not losing my mind.
posted by nayantara at 1:45 PM on January 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't assume what happened to you yesterday is going to happen to you every time you use the punching bag. I'd say try it a few more times. I agree with others who have already articulated that what you experienced wasn't all bad. I would frankly love to have that happen to me when working out. It sounded amazing. I think if you are able to you should honor that experience and do some reflection on how and why, as others upthread have so eloquently explained. PTSD vets have a saying we use on each other-- "This is your body's natural reaction to unnatural circumstances."
posted by seasparrow at 2:18 PM on January 4, 2021

So much a thing that it shows up in a comic.

(To be fair, it's not quite the same as the person is already upset, but.)
posted by inexorably_forward at 3:47 PM on January 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sure, protocols might have been overstating it but basically:

- if we have the room/space available we'll see if the student (adult) wants to move into another room and hit things (pads/targets) some more, and by that I mean "hey come work on this"

- if we don't we'll usually offer them some room at the back of the class for the same thing

- if they are having trouble getting back in control our senior staff (who are 20+ years experienced) will come in and work out alongside them, like also hit things next to them, and there's a way that by first coming into sync and then slowing things down you can often lower that person's response (we do this with kids who have lost it in a modified way as well. We're a no-touch environment unless there's a safety issue or for adult self-defence.)

- then we might do some cool down or breathing activities, divorced from the class routine if we can (one of our locations doesn't always have the space, but we do always have a back of the room) - this works partly because as a formal martial arts environment, there's a certain amount of (mild) conditioning that students get to follow the instructor, jumping jacks, attention, etc., and so there's a half-conscious response that comes in, especially using the-tone-that-gets-45-kids-doing-it

- we offer water and a calm office chair afterwards and make sure the person's okay to get home; if it's at the end of the day a staff member will wait if needed

- we call before their next class (this isn't unusual for us) to make sure they know they are welcome back

- we don't pry into anything personal; like I said this is something that happens sometimes and it's just - a thing, like people crying in yoga

I got triggered once learning self-defence; an instructor pinned me right at the start when I hadn't expected it, and I had a very strong response that nearly involved me attacking her once I was up, and I ended up in the smaller room basically doing sparring drills with the chief instructor for like 30 minutes.

I had prided myself on all my triggers being more the quiet self-destruct kind, and also under control for eons, so it was weird and disturbing to have a highly emotional fight response. It was super weird to have it - not shrugged off exactly but sort of like "well then, tell your instructor not to pin you, but if it happens we'll just go hit things." But there's a wisdom of the body that people who are really into their bodies know, who knew? Bookish me did not!
posted by warriorqueen at 6:39 AM on January 5, 2021 [4 favorites]

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