One out of every three clients I encountered this past month was in the midst of a break up. Although February is nationally recognized as a time to celebrate love, thanks in part to the mass market holiday that Valentine’s has become, it seems that more and more people choose to end their relationships during this time. Break ups apply to all kinds of human connections like friendships, romantic partners, marriages or family members and illicit the same range of emotions one would encounter within the grieving process. Rather than swimming in the vortex of loss alone, these clients sought out massage as comfort. How is it that heartbreak “hurts” so much? The physical reaction to emotional loss can be explained through medical science.
When emotional stress is experienced, especially loss, our brains signal the release of stress hormones from the adrenal glands and certain proteins that constrict blood flow causing part of the heart to become temporarily enlarged and incapable of pumping well. The rest of the heart has to compensate by contracting more forcefully. The pain felt in one’s chest resembles that of a heart attack; however without the permanent damage associated with it. The heart is described as being temporarily stunned or rendered “helpless” which is an interesting choice of words given the sufferer’s mental state. This condition is known medically as stress cardiomyopathy (formerly takotsubo cardiomyopathy) but many doctors refer to it as Broken Heart Syndrome.
Pain is the brain’s primal way of responding to trouble. That trouble can be caused by stimuli both inside and outside of the physical body. Sensory receptors known as nociceptors register these stimuli and in milliseconds return the signal of pain. When we are in a state of emotional distress, the brain’s blood supply is altered, sending more blood to the area responsible for regulating physical pain. This excess flow has been found in people with depression making them more peaked to pain. The emotions felt during a break up enact this physiological response, registering an ache or hollow feeling often felt within the organs of our core; not just in the heart. The state of pain also kicks in the sympathetic nervous system to respond, known as our state of “fight or flight.” The hormones and proteins released inhibit appetite which can lead to anorexic behavior, keep us over alert which translates into insomnia or disrupted sleeping patterns, constricts blood vessels causing headaches, stops digestive juices from being released causing tummy troubles and for some, their overabundance can lead to panic attacks and adrenal fatigue.
One of the main things massage can do is kick into gear the parasympathetic (i.e. “rest and digest”) response. This is why it is so effective in stress management. Massage counters a lot of the physiological affects of a broken heart by switching off the sympathetic release of hormones and proteins related to emotional stress. In addition, it counters any muscular and postural imbalances that could develop from protective patterns of movement or the general feeling of wanting to cocoon into oneself. It also prevents the isolation and loneliness that creeps in after the shock, denial, guilt, anger and bargaining stages of the grieving process pass because it allows for touch from another that is warm, therapeutic and outside of any emotional attachment or expectation. It is a safe place to let go of emotions and come back into the body. Some of us put names on slips of paper in the freezer, bury all the things ever given as gifts, move out of the apartment whose walls are saturated with the memory of YOU and THEM, cut or dye hair in all kinds of ways to deal with a break up. But giving yourself the love you once had for another person, which in the case of my clients was in the form of therapeutic massage, will have the most beneficial overall effect for all parties involved. Acceptance is a whole lot easier when you don’t have to HURT as much.