Motion and Emotion

by Karol Ward, LCSW on Mar 01, 2007

What to do when emotions arise in a body-mind movement session.

“Michelle” was completing a movement on a Gyrotonic® tower, supervised one-on-one by her instructor. The exercise involved arching her upper back and shoulders. As Michelle finished the motion, she sat up and began to cry. Startled, her trainer first checked for injury; then, sure that Michelle was not hurt, the trainer stopped the session and took her into a back room within the studio for privacy. They sat together until Michelle was calm, and then they ended their work for the day.

Later, as she relates this experience to me in a psychotherapy session, Michelle connects with the fact that she holds chronic physical tension in her upper shoulders. Because she is in body-mind psychotherapy, a therapy that combines talking and working with the body, she is aware that the arching movement in her Gyrotonic session stretched an area in her shoulders and freed the emotions being held there. She is grateful for her trainer’s support, even though the depth of feeling that emerged surprised them both. We discuss what the trainer did to help Michelle feel supported, and she says, “My trainer didn’t get upset or try to fix [the emotion] for me. She just sat with me, offered reassurance and let me cry till I was done. That was comforting, because I was embarrassed that it happened.”

Instances of emotional release are not uncommon in the body-mind movement arena. Sometimes, as in Michelle’s case, the emotions take both the client and the wellness professional by surprise; other times, the client makes a conscious decision to share personal stresses with the professional. Either way, why do emotions sometimes surface when we move? What is happening in the body? And what is the appropriate way for a wellness professional to respond?

When Emotions Are Held in the Body

The human body houses a complex system of impulses, feelings and thoughts. We are constantly responding emotionally, both internally and externally, to a variety of situations in life. These emotional states are fluid and correspond to how we relate to the world (Keleman 1989). As we respond emotionally, a physiological “charge,” or energetic response, starts to happen within the body, and the charge builds until it is released (Reich 1980).

Imagine setting off on a roller coaster ride. The first hill has a steep incline and then a big drop down. As you start going up that hill, excitement, fear or joy begins to arise in you. The climb continues, and the emotion increases till you reach the top. Then, as you crest the hill and your feelings are at their highest, you let out a big scream and plunge down the slope on the other side. If the ride were to end at this point, the car would slow down and you would move into a calmer state.

This roller coaster experience is very similar to what happens when emotions build in the body and are then released. We start to have a feeling-reaction to a situation, the feeling builds to a peak, we express the emotion and then we move into a state of relaxation. But what happens when emotion is not released when it needs to be?

Our body shape is influenced not only by heredity, diet and regularity of movement but also by our emotional history. As Bodymind author Ken Dychtwald states, “The body begins to form around the feelings that animate it, and the feelings, in turn, become habituated and trapped within the body tissue itself” (Dychtwald 1986). In the field of body-mind psychotherapy, the understanding is that feelings are held in the body because we handle our emotional difficulties not only with our minds but also within our bodies. How do we do that?

It happens in a variety of ways. Most people do it through holding their breath and tightening their muscles in various areas of the body, so that over time a chronic muscular tension starts to set in. This tension, named “armoring” by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, MD, back in the 1930s, is the way we compensate in the body for unexpressed emotions (Reich 1980). Those emotions can be upsets from earlier in the day, last week or many years past; we may not even remember how or why the feelings originated.

In addition to muscular tension, we develop psychological and physical stances that correspond to the emotions we are trying to keep at bay. For example, pectoral muscles that are overdeveloped in relation to the rest of the body might cover a fear of being vulnerable. A posterior pelvic tilt (the pelvis tucked under) may be linked to sexual inhibition. Similarly, hereditary and medical factors aside, an accumulation of weight in a particular part of the body or an inability to gain strength or flexibility in a specific muscle group usually corresponds to emotion held in that area. When the area opens up through movement, as happened with Michelle, the emotion held there surfaces.

S.A.N.E.: A Four-Step Process

So how do you, as a wellness professional, handle a client’s emotional upset and still maintain your professional boundaries? The S.A.N.E. SM approach, a four-step process I developed, can help you offer appropriate guidance and support while remaining within your scope of practice. (For more on the importance of observing scope-of-practice limits, see the sidebar, left.)

When emotion arises in a client you are working with, remember the acronym S.A.N.E, which stands for “Stop, Acknowledge, Normalize and Evaluate.”

Stop. When a one-on-one training client becomes emotional, it’s important to stop what you are doing and check in with him. Continuing on would not allow for the emotional support or “holding” that people need when they are upset. Holding, in this context, does not mean physically holding the client. It means witnessing the client’s emotion without trying to change or fix it—a process that creates safety (Fox 2001). In a group class, the way to “stop” is to monitor the emotional state of the participant without drawing attention to her. If she is very upset, a brief pause in the class and an offer to leave with her for a short while can be helpful. Remember that both in one-on-one sessions and group classes, the person may reject your offer of support out of embarrassment. If that happens, you can simply offer to check in later and follow up.

Acknowledge. When you ask clients or participants how they are, you may get a variety of answers, ranging from “I’m stressed” to “I’m tired” to “I’m fine” (even when that is not the case). Mirroring what a person has said is a simple and gentle way to acknowledge his feelings without having to fix the problem. “Clients need to feel understood and affirmed for who they are, to feel safe and comfortable, to feel some degree of sameness or likeness with you and others” (Fox 2001). Mirroring involves reflecting back to the client or student in an empathetic manner what he has just said to you. For example, if a client says, “I’m having a hard day,” you can nod and repeat, “You’re having a hard day.” You can repeat the response verbatim or repeat parts of it: “It’s a hard day for you” or “Yes, I can see it’s a hard day for you.” This straightforward reflection of your client’s emotional state is a powerful and calming tool.

Normalize. As stated earlier, embarrassment as well as confusion may accompany the emotional upset. The person will need reassurance from you that she is not being foolish or out of control to feel what she feels. If she says she is embarrassed, a statement from you that normalizes her experience will be very reassuring. A statement like “This sometimes happens to people when they move” or “It’s okay, I’ve seen this happen before” (as long as that is true in your experience) will help the client keep a perspective on what just happened. If she asks why emotions arise during movement, you can offer a general answer based on your own knowledge; for example, “Exercise is a stress reliever, and sometimes what’s behind that stress pops out.” Stating that you are not sure why it happened for this client, but that you have known it to happen to others, is often enough.

Evaluate. Carefully observing your client or student will tell you what steps to take next. In Michelle’s case, her trainer decided to end the session early because even though Michelle was calmer, there was enough lingering emotion to convey that she was not ready to continue. In other situations, the emotion may come and go like a flash flood and your client will let you know he is ready to work again. Observation, your relationship with your client and the questions you ask about how your client is feeling will help you make a decision. However, an ongoing pattern of emotional upset that continues to happen in your work together will need a deeper evaluation.

A Valuable Way to Help

The body’s amazing ability to move and transform itself is inspiring for body-mind professionals and their clients alike. In your role within the wellness arena, you have the opportunity to support your clients’ healing process in a simple but valuable way that stays clearly within your practice boundaries.

National Association of Social Workers,

United States Association for Body Psychotherapy,


Dychtwald, K. 1986. Bodymind. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Fox, R. 2001. Elements of the Helping Process: A Guide for Clinicians. New York: Haworth Press.

Keleman, S. 1989. Patterns of Distress: Emotional Insults and Human Form. Berkeley, CA: Center Press.

Reich, W. 1980. Character Analysis. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux.

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About the Author

Karol Ward, LCSW IDEA Author/Presenter

Karol Ward, LCSW, is a communication and practice building consultant and coach. She is also a nationally recognized speaker and author Worried Sick: Break Free From Chronic Worry to Achieve Mental an...