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.
I never miss a training day. My exercise schedule is rigid; conducted with a NO EXCUSES attitude. That is how I roll. No one has to cajole me out of bed, push me out of the house or leave threatening messages on my phone to scare me into fitness. When it comes to exercise, I have always been self-motivated. Twice a week, I do a combination of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength/weight training with my trainer. Another two days of the week, I do some form of cardio mixed with cross fit and strength band/weight training on my own, either at home or at the gym. Everyday of the week, I manage to fit in at least 45 minutes to an hour of walking, stair climbing or overall hustling intermingled with my work as a massage therapist, which is a tremendous core strength builder. It’s fair to say that I’m tired by the end of my day, but the only time I truly feel the affects of all my activities is the few days prior to my period known as premenstrual syndrome or PMS for short. To say I am pooped would be an understatement. My body feels like it is made of lead. My balance and coordination are a joke; I can barely do a one legged squat without tipping over, which my trainer finds highly entertaining being that I have that martial arts/dance background and what not. My nutrition becomes spotty, as I crave the saltiest of salty and chocolatey of chocolate things, but get so nauseated that I end up eating less than what my body needs. Worst of all these symptoms is my emotional state, which fluctuates from absolute rage to bottom of my soul sadness. The former makes me want to break someone’s face and the latter, like I am falling to pieces mid-workout.
The 7 to 10 days prior to the arrival of the menstrual cycle and the first two days of the cycle itself can be unbearable for many women. Men can make all the snide comments and PMS jokes in the world; however hormones are powerful movers and shakers of a body’s state of balance a.k.a. homeostasis. These chemical messengers regulate many functions and processes; too little or too much of a particular hormone and things go haywire. Take for example human growth hormone, which ensures our bones, muscles and tissues grow us into adulthood and beyond. Having an over production causes Gigantism, where a person will grow to heights above 7 foot. Having too little will cause Dwarfism, a condition where a person is extremely short (well under 4′ 10″) with proportional body parts. With respect to PMS, it is the shifting of estrogen and progesterone that cause its symptoms and determine how acutely one experiences them. My clumsiness (aforementioned falling over during my workout), low tolerance for noises (I can’t take it when weighted plates and dumbbells get dropped after people finish their sets), difficulty concentrating/confusion (no, no you meant my other “left”), fatigue (lead body), aggressive behavior (god bless boxing and muay thai) and craving for excessive sleep are all symptoms that challenge my ability to workout and work effectively. Rather than ignore and try to push through, I found that I had to modify my definition of what would be effective fitness for this period of time (pun unintentional).
While sparring relieved some of the aggression I felt, trying to take someone’s head off left me vulnerable to shoulder injury. Hence, know when to use 20% of your strength and when to go full on. Instead of taking a 4 second break between sets, I grab my water bottle more often and take the time to breath through whatever meltdown I am feeling coming on; therefore getting it out of my system before continuing. Again, I am avoiding injuring myself by pushing my body, but without sacrificing the level of workout I have set out to do. I also found that increasing my cardio (i.e. aerobic exercise) during this time helped me to get my appetite in check and jump-start my cycle without as much muscular cramping as I felt when I did more strength training and aggressive exercise. Since every body is different, it is super important to pay attention to what your symptoms are telling you and then, try modifying your activities to see what works for you. Ultimately, PMS should not be a reason to shy away from fitness. If anything, it will help put those hormones back in their bloody place (that one was intentional 🙂 ) per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.