Does anyone happen to know some sources or ideas regarding the biochemistry of working out while under socially-caused stress? This is a more in-depth follow-up, and focusing on the biochemistry, to a previous question, and so I think it deserves its own question--particularly since nothing like what I am seeking was answered in that one. (For example, I am completely uninterested here in the accepted answer there, which was to improve general health behaviors).

Elaboration: I exercised today during a period of several days of very intense and lasting socially-caused stress/anger. At the time of exercising, I was still actively angry, and quite aware of that...and thought that perhaps the exercise would do me some good to relieve some of my tension as well as just hit my regular exercise goal. The workout was a challenging (mostly inclined) treadmill workout of one hour, one that I have done a few times recently with no serious bad feelings afterward.

Tonight, though, after the workout, around dinner, I started to feel rather unwell. It was almost like coming down with a flu, just really out of sorts, warm, tired, odd feelings in my head, etc. I've felt "run over by a truck" before after hard workouts, but they are usually in the beginning of the process of getting back into shape. I know this workout is one my body was already mostly adapted to, but tonight it (possibly...maybe it was some other factor) made me feel quite unwell. I am beginning to recover now.

The Question: What is known about the biochemistry of the interaction between stress, particularly socially caused anger/frustration, and hard aerobic exercise or exercise generally?

My first pass hypothesis is that the exercise itself raises cortisol levels, but the anger/stress has already raised the basal cortisol significantly, and so the exercise-induced cortisol spike is riding on top of the social-stress caused basal level of cortisol, so the resulting cortisol levels are really high, and the poor feeling I have been having for some hours is the result of this. It may be any other biochemical molecule or molecule class, though--cytokines also come to mind.

A corollary question is whether it is unwise to exercise at these times, because of the catabolic effects of cortisol, let alone the potentially harmful effects of sustained elevated levels of glucocorticoids generally (cf. Sapolsky).


2 Answers 2


It's a combination of things, actually.

Anger causes the amygdala in the brain to go a little crazy, and it triggers the response of dumping adrenaline and noradrenaline into the body. This is similar to what happens when the "fight or flight" response is triggered.

During this time, you are generally capable of greater physical feats than normal, driven by the excess exciter chemicals in your system. (This is commonly called an "adrenaline dump" or adrenaline rush). Part of this, however, means that your body uses itself harder than normal without you really realizing it, and you use up energy at a higher rate.

Once this passes, your body basically kind of shuts down, and you get the fatigue, trembling, transient blackouts, and things of this nature (Depending on the nature and length of the emergency/adrenaline rush). Do a few searches on the effect of anger and adrenaline, and you will find many descriptions similar to yours.


It's a really interesting question and I think I stumbled across at least part of the answer when I was reading Daniel Kahnamen's book Thinking Fast and Slow. Although not about fitness per say, the author referenced numerous studies throughout the book, a series of which I perked my ears up at.

Baumeister’s group has repeatedly found that an effort of will or selfcontrol is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion. In a typical demo thypical denstration, participants who are instructed to stifle their emotional reaction to an emotionally charged film will later perform poorly on a test of physical stamina—how long they can maintain a strong grip on a dynamometer in spite of increasing discomfort. The emotional effort in the first phase of the experiment reduces the ability to withstand the pain of sustained muscle contraction, and ego-depleted people therefore succumb more quickly to the urge to quit.

It's a long book with a lot of good information, but related to your question he does a lot to expose the physiology of thought. In athletics we are quick to recognize (or at least respect) the neurology required to move our bodies, but it's a relatively new concept to award our cognition the same respect: it consumes physical resources when it has to work hard.

According to Baumeister's research, the same pool is drawn from for you to fire impulses to your muscles to squat heavy as it is for you to handle an emotionally taxing event.

The most surprising discovery made by Baumeister’s group shows, as he puts it, that the idea of mental energy is more than a mere metaphor. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body, and effortful mental activity appears to be especially expensive in the currency of glucose. When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops.

I'm sure there are other things at work as well, like stress released cortisol you mentioned, and those certainly have a documented catabolic and inflammatory result. What I found so remarkable about Kahnman's work however is the direct linkage between "a hard day at the office" resulting in poor athletic performance that same day.

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