How to Release Emotional Tension
One topic that I get asked about time and time again is “How do I release emotional tension?”
“I feel like I’m walking around with all this anger inside of me, and I don’t want to be like this. I’m getting into fights with my partner, or people at work, about really small stuff. Then I feel really bad about myself later. But I can’t seem to stop doing it.”
When I looked into creating a good answer to this question, what I noticed was that there was very little written down about catharsis - the natural release of emotional tension. One of the original pieces about the subject, which I came across two decades ago when I was training in group therapy, was by Arthur Janov.
In his book, The Primal Scream, I recall Janov recounting the case of a young man he was treating who, one day, let out this almighty scream. Afterwards, it seemed that he was entirely cured of all his issues through this single, spontaneous act.
Whilst it was excellent that Janov introduced the world to catharsis in this manner, he simultaneously set up an expectation that is very unlikely to be met. Yes, we can experience a catharsis, and it’s great. We feel liberated.
But, our habitual mindset will act as though it’s an autonomous entity, and so seek to reassert itself later on. In simple terms, we take 5 steps forward and then 4 steps back. This is still positive movement… but it does take time. The fantasy of one cathartic experience that changes our life forever is just that, a fantasy. We have to repeat, repeat, and work at it over time.
What makes Janov’s description of catharsis so compelling is also how emotional release often appears to us, whilst we feel ourselves trapped in a state of non-expression.
It’s very common for me to meet clients who tell me, “If only I could really let out a huge scream,” or “ If only I could really weep my guts out, then I know I would be free.”
Without negating anyone’s perception, this too is really not the case in reality. But, when we feel the pressure of repressed emotionality inside of us, it naturally seems to our mind that if we could just let it out once and for all, it would be finished and done with.
So, there’s really not much written down about catharsis. And that which does exist, along with our own natural beliefs, can be misleading.
But catharsis can nevertheless happen. Our bodies absolutely can release emotional tension. Let’s look at the bare bones of how this happens.
What is catharsis?
Catharsis is when the body and mind enter a spontaneous, uncontrolled movement of expression.
It’s rather like what happens if you grip the end of a garden hose tight, and then let go. All the pressure trapped behind your hand causes the hose to twitch and leap about spontaneously.
The chief characteristics of catharsis are therefore uncontrolled movement and spontaneity. Which naturally brings up the question - Okay, so how to I create this?
The answer is that you can’t make it happen, like you can with any deliberate act. But that you can “set the stage” and hope that it takes place.
Cathartic release has two distinct phases, the first of which is designed to try and provoke the latter.
You begin by repetitively performing some specific dynamic movement, gradually building up the intensity, until you reach a point where your body actually enters a different state and begins to spontaneously release.
It’s a little like bringing a pan of water to the boil. You heat it up and heat it up. And at some point, it begins to boil and changes to steam. It undergoes a change of state.
Let’s look at some examples.
If you go to a boxing gym, you will likely see one of those big, heavy punchbags that hangs from the ceiling. Boxers use them to train with, building up their rhythm, speed and strength. We can use one of these punchbags to create a cathartic release. But to do this, we have to have a different focus from how we would usually use a punchbag.
Begin by mechanically punching the bag for some ten to twenty seconds, one fist after the other, slowly increasing the speed and power. Then open your mouth, begin to scream and simply punch the bag as hard and fast as you can, keeping nothing in reserve. Keeping screaming throughout.
It’s very important to hold nothing back. Aim to totally exhaust all your energy as quickly as possible. After around 20 seconds of this full-on punching and screaming, simply drop to the floor, lie on your back and feel your body. You may have noticed a release whilst punching or you may simply feel lighter afterwards when you get up.
Little kids know how to create a spontaneous release. Imagine you’re five years old and one of your siblings gets an ice cream and you don’t. The emotions are overwhelming. There’s this huge rage at the unfairness of it all.
Lie on your back on a mat, with your knees raised and begin to slam your fists, one after the other, down on the mat beside you. Simultaneously, lift and kick down with one foot after the other, in sync with your fists. At the same time, move your head from side to side and scream. You must make sound. And if you lock your neck it won’t work.
Build this exercise up, making sound throughout, for twenty seconds and, if you’re lucky, you will find your body taking over and doing it itself. A natural tantrum release just happens. Once you sense that something has been released, lie back and stretch your arms and legs out. Relax for some minutes and just feel your body.
Visit my YouTube channel and search for “Tantrum” to watch this exercise being performed.
These kinds of quite evocative techniques do require you to make sound. You need to do them in a space where you don’t feel self conscious, or it’s unlikely catharsis will happen. But there are also more gentle techniques that work on the same principle - building charge to a spontaneous release point. These don’t require such loud screaming though it’s important to feel that you don’t need to completely hold sound in.
Let’s take a look at a couple.
This relatively well-known technique has been co-opted by all sorts of therapy schools over the years.
Lying on your back with your knees up, you work your way through a series of tension exercises that involve your pelvis and knees until you come to a final cathartic stage. In this final stage, you simply look for a point where your knees, and then perhaps your whole body, begin spontaneous movements that may continue for half an hour.
You can find info about this sequence in many places online, including on my YouTube channel by searching “psoas release.”
Finally, this technique uses the same principle as the others - build up the tension and hope for a spontaneous release to take over. You can also find it by searching my YouTube channel, linked above.
Once again, lying on your back on a mat with your knees up, begin to tilt your pelvis forwards and back in time with your breathing, keeping your tailbone on the mat throughout. After 10 minutes or so, change the movement to gently lifting your tailbone just 1 or 2 inches (no more) off the mat and carefully bringing it back down, again in time with your breath. Finally, after 10 minutes of this, continue gently lifting your tailbone up. But instead of slowly lowering it back down, begin to allow it to simply drop, uncontrolled with a small bump on the mat. Explore the speed of the bump, no longer needing to follow the breath.
If you have built the initial stages up correctly, then you will likely find that, at some point, you experience your pelvis merrily bumping up and down, entirely by itself and with no control from your thinking mind! This natural release can happen for thirty minutes or more.
To complete, once again lie back and relax, remaining tuned into to the sense of your body.
With all these techniques, keep something in mind. Your body knows how to do this stuff. For a billion years, long before our frontal lobes developed, our primate ancestors naturally released emotional tension in these kinds of ways. In fact, our thinking mind tends to get in the way of spontaneous, cathartic release.
So, take your time learning the technique and follow each stage with diligence. Even if you don’t get the result you want the first few times, keep trying. It will happen, because deep inside, your body already knows how to do it.
Thank you for reading.
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