What is this physical feeling of (non-sexual) longing?
May 4, 2006 1:10 PM   Subscribe

As far back as I can remember, I have gotten a feeling in my chest when I am experiencing a feeling of longing - someone leaving that I'll miss, departing a place I love, or knowing that something is coming to an end. It's like a flutter, or a lightness...I can't really describe it well. The funny thing is, I also used to get it at decidedly unimportant times, like when a store is closing and they announce that everyone should make their way to the checkout. What is this all about?

I've had stomach "butterflies" and I've heard the expression about hearts fluttering, but I've not heard of anyone else who associates it with a kind of melancholy longing. Does this feeling in one's chest has a name and a physiological explanation? Flutteringly...
posted by Bud Dickman to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if this might be the source of the phrase "a broken heart"?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:14 PM on May 4, 2006

I don't know of a physiological explanation, but I think I know what you're talking about. I think Steven has the best description for it.
posted by Anonymous at 1:18 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: The thing is, it's not an unpleasant feeling. As I said, it's accompanied by melancholy more than sadness or despair. And the physical part of it is kind of ticklish, if anything.

And it's really weird that I'd get it at store closings. It's as if any drawing-to-a-close caused it.
posted by Bud Dickman at 1:23 PM on May 4, 2006

I get that - there was a time (right after a breakup, actually,) where it was happening a lot, even at the silly times you talk about. I'd see a bird fly away and I'd feel it, or see someone doing something really kind and feel it too. Just an ache in the middle of your chest.
posted by Marquis at 1:33 PM on May 4, 2006

I get it, too. It's almost like my body wants to be depressed about something, but my brain can't come up with anything worthwhile. It passes once I forget about the feeling, and it's sort of like losing The Game (which, by the way, I just lost), when it comes back again a few weeks or months later.

Sometimes I suspect that the feeling comes on when I'm understimulated, like my brain needs something important to happen.

(I don't have any problems with depression or loneliness, by the way, so I think this feeling is nothing to worry about.)
posted by landtuna at 1:36 PM on May 4, 2006

Just another "I have that too" chiming in.
It seems to happen to me fairly consistently regardless of whatever else is going on in my life. I've always attributed it to natural brain-chemical fluctuations.
posted by ktrey at 1:44 PM on May 4, 2006

I just lost, too, you jerk. And now I have that feeling. Golly.
posted by JekPorkins at 1:56 PM on May 4, 2006

I think it might have something to do with the solar plexus.
posted by hartsell at 2:01 PM on May 4, 2006

And it's really weird that I'd get it at store closings. It's as if any drawing-to-a-close caused it.

Perhaps in some way you're interpreting it as a metaphor for death. I can get that way sometimes when I think about things ending.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:05 PM on May 4, 2006

Again I just wanted to be another one to say that I get that too. I've never really thought about it or considered the fact that this might happen to others I just thought it was a thing (for want of a better term.) Huh...
posted by ob at 2:10 PM on May 4, 2006

I get that too, and I always assumed most people have it. I get plenty of physical manifestations of feelings, like a giddy lightfooted feeling when I'm especially happy or excited. I always associate this particular fluttering in chest/tightness in throat one with melancholy. Though it doesn't happen to me when a store closes, I always have it when I'm on a train pulling out of a station, and I kind of like it, too. I also get it during more major times of loss.
posted by katie at 2:30 PM on May 4, 2006

I know that one too, and Landtuna just triggered it. Then I noticed that mild sheepish amusement cuts the feeling off abruptly.
posted by Phred182 at 2:37 PM on May 4, 2006

over-generalized separation anxiety?
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 2:54 PM on May 4, 2006

I get it too. I've always wondered if it has anything to do with the idea of chakras. Apparently the chest chakra is the "heart/emotion chakra".
posted by bubukaba at 3:00 PM on May 4, 2006

There's a theory of emotions that they all have internal body sensations like this and, in a sense, that's all they are. If nothing else, those physical sensations strongly validate our emotions and probably account for a large portion of why we distinguish them from "thoughts". Additionally, our emotions are "gut feelings" and this is closely reated to the enteric nervous system—the stomach's "brain".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:44 PM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

You don't even need to go quite as far as what EB's proposing -- almost all emotions *do* have bodily sensations, which you can label and identify if you're open and sensitive enough to try. Stomach clenches if you're anxious, throat might clench if youre nervous, heart reacts to love or loss, genitals to lust, face flushes with anger. A lot of times, if you're experiencing a negative emotion, breaking down its physical manifestations can help you ride through it without getting caught up in it. (Positive emotions, too, I guess.)
posted by occhiblu at 3:49 PM on May 4, 2006

As with other complex emotions (Gemütlichkeit, Schadenfreude, usw.), the Germans have a word that seems to fit your description: Sehnsucht (PDF). The psychologists studying it translate it as "life-longing," which is pretty useless to an English-speaker, but go on to give instances that may ring a bell for you:
For older adults, Sehnsucht ... appears to have a more bittersweet emotional quality.... [and might function] to help integrate positive and negative aspects of emotional life.
posted by rob511 at 4:15 PM on May 4, 2006 [2 favorites]

May I risk a digression to ask the same question about two feelings of similar subtlety? They are: 1) a tightening or tingling of the scalp at the back/top of the head when learning something or feeling virtuous; and 2) a brief involuntary unfocussing of the eyes when someone does or says something stupid.

I get (2) more often, I guess.

On reflection, I've probably posted a lot that has given (2) to others.

Oh, and I just lost the game again.
posted by Phred182 at 4:24 PM on May 4, 2006

I get a light dizzy feeling when I'm doing something dumb, or at least, when I'm breaking with personal traditions. When I took my first drink of alcohol, my before my first puff on a cigarette, when I first walked into a bar that I *knew* would be my home for the next few years. Not a feeling in my chest, but definitely a physiological response to a mental state.
posted by notsnot at 4:25 PM on May 4, 2006

I second what occhiblu says. Try to pay attention to what happens in your body as you experience certain emotions, even in trivial or everyday situations. It can be quite a revelation -- sometimes your body even registers the emotion before it comes to full conscious attention.

As for this particular bodily sensation connected with melancholy . . . yes, I've experienced this sensation too.

Store closing -- it's triggering something else, that's my guess. It's not the store closing that makes you feel this way. Somewhere deep in your unconscious, the store closing reminds you of _____ . Figure out what the ____ is, and it will all make more sense.

By the way, therapy is a great place to do this sort of exploration. That's not to say you need it (therapy isn't always about treating a crisis). But if you want to look deeper, even if you're simply curious, a good therapist can act as both a guide -- pointing you in directions you wouldn't have thought of otherwise -- and as a netural, non-judgmental sounding-board.
posted by treepour at 4:25 PM on May 4, 2006

How about Poignancy?

Also, your examples all revolve around endings. Perhaps you are responding to the concept of eternity. The idea that things will never again be as they are. In philosophy, the concept of the "sublime" references a "greatness [vastness] with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation."

I sometimes describe works of art that inspire this feeling as "heart-rendingly good." It captures a sense of awe and melancholy. This is perfectly captured in The Shawshank Redemption in a speech by Red:
"I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away... and for the briefest of moments -- every last man at Shawshank felt free"
posted by Jeff Howard at 4:41 PM on May 4, 2006

Response by poster: Good answers, all. Well, except the brain cancer one.

In thinking about this - trying to remember the feeling - it seems that the physical feeling is very much "forward."

By that, I mean it seems that the fluttery thing in the chest has some kind of forward momentum to it.

If I were to get totally cheesy, I'd say it's as if the heart is trying to follow the thing that's leaving. That's pretty frilly and dime-store spiritual, but it feels right. The feeling is one of "Wait! Don't go! I'm coming with you!" And somehow there's a physical event that "says" that.

Our bodies and minds are amazing things. Dude.
posted by Bud Dickman at 5:12 PM on May 4, 2006

Wistful is the closest word I can think of right now. Poignant is perhaps too strong a word, though the feeling seems to be a pang of melancholy rather than a drawn out ennui. I get this feeling when I finish a good book and several mefites tried to identify the feeling in this AskMe thread.
posted by roboto at 5:25 PM on May 4, 2006

I think wistful, poignant, nostalgic , melancholic are all good descriptions for the feeling, which is indeed a physical sensation in the chest.

As Bud Dickman says, it is by no means unpleasant even though it seems to be connected to loss, or leaving, or something/some time that can never be regained.

I found a 30 year old diary recently - an appointment book rather than a journal - and on reading it I had the fluttery feeling to the extent that I would keep going back to the diary and re-reading it just to wallow in the feeling some more!

The entries themselves were very mundane: Take car to panelbeater. Pay power bill $8. Phone numbers of people long forgotten. In this instance the trigger is obviously memories of long ago experiences, but it can happen - as roboto mentions - at the end of a good book ("Black Beauty", read as a child), or a movie - I think I cried at the enf of "The Iron Giant"!

I've experienced it when someone is doing me a good turn. And if something mildly pathetic happens to one of my children, for example drinking a whole glass of neat cordial (instead of mixing it with water), then putting the empty glass down without complaint and remarking it tasted a bit strong.
posted by TiredStarling at 6:24 PM on May 4, 2006

It's part of the animal that evolution left in you.
posted by ontic at 7:01 PM on May 4, 2006

It is called "nostalgia," derived from the Attic Greek nostos, homecoming, and algos, pain.

So, literally, the pain of homecoming. The homecoming was the traditional end to the hero's tale, so in addition to homecoming, it connotes ending. Nostalgia is the pain you feel when you realize that the long day of your success is over and you are moving on inexorably to your tragic end.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:41 PM on May 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

In thinking about this - trying to remember the feeling - it seems that the physical feeling is very much "forward."

By that, I mean it seems that the fluttery thing in the chest has some kind of forward momentum to it.

It's just a fleeting moment of anxiety. MonkeySaltedNuts and Ontic nailed it. I think it's just a vestige of "fight or flight" mixed with a bit of separation anxiety.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 9:08 PM on May 4, 2006

Wistful is the closest word I can think of right now...
WISTFUL! Nice. Difference between the right word and the almost right word... I love this language.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:29 PM on May 4, 2006

I get this too, always assumed everyone did and that it was just anxiety - not panic-attack pathological type anxiety, just a fleeting, everyday anxiousness.

In the supermarket you are anxious because you have to quickly remember everything you need in a short space of time and people are waiting for you to get out. When your heart is broken you are anxious because everything you ever dreamed of has been trodden into the dust by the one person you held most dear, and you fear you will be doomed to travel this earthly journey alone and in misery forever.

Same thing, different volumes.
posted by penguin pie at 6:58 AM on May 5, 2006

I get it to a crippling degree when I do a show. At the end of the run, it just kills me. I don't go to closing parties, can't stand the idea. Instead, I drive home. Likely enough, I cry on the way. I get over it quickly enough, but it is bad enough for the time it lasts.

The feeling is akin to grief, which I've known. But instead of one's guts ripped out wholesale (it was my partner of 5 years that died), it is a more gentle tug. Same thing on smaller scale, I'd guess.
posted by Goofyy at 7:19 AM on May 5, 2006

The relationship between body-states and emotion is fascinating. The common notion is that we're happy, so we smile. But there are scientists (I wish I could site one) who believe it's the opposite -- we smile so we're happy.

In other words, something good happens and our body unconsciously responds to that by smiling. Our brain then takes a reading of the facial expression and thinks, "Hmm. I'm smiling. I must be happy!" And we feel happy.

My stomach reacts very strongly -- in a negative way -- to stress. Tell me I have to take a test, and -- WHAM -- I get a stomach ache.

But of course there are other things that cause stomach aches, like eating too much pie. The funny thing is that whenever I get a stomach ache, I feel stressed (anecdotal evidence supporting the theory, above). I eat too much pie, I get a stomach ache, my brain takes a body scan, realizes I have a stomach ache, and makes the (wrong) interpretation that I'm stressed (which, alas, sometimes leads to a bigger stomach ache, and I get into a feedback loop).

This manifests itself as a vague feeling that something is wrong. I'm so used to the stomach ache, I don't even notice it. The feeling grows, and I think, "Oh, shit. Oh, shit. I'm in trouble now!"

When this happens, I've learned to take a deep breath and think about everything that's going on in my life. Marriage? That's fine. Job? That's fine. Health? That's fine. Rent? I paid it... I go through the checklist, realize that nothing is wrong, and then go "Doh! I just have a stomach ache!"

This sometimes helps me feel less stressed. The funny thing is that the association between stomach ache and stress is SO strong that even this knowledge doesn't always help. Sometimes I find myself in the ridiculous situation of literally being stressed over nothing -- and KNOWING I'm stressed over nothing.

Assuming this theorizing is right, we're probably dealing with a legacy of evolution. If "lower" forms are not conscious (or less conscious than we are), they can't feel emotion the way we do. A fish can't think "I'm sad," because it can't think "I'm." But it must have emotion-like responses, or it can't survive. It must flee in the face of danger, etc. So presumably it feels body sensations and then reacts to them.

Consciousness may be an abstraction layer on top of that. We feel the sensation and read it as an emotion.
posted by grumblebee at 8:09 AM on May 5, 2006

At a reiki class, I was taught this hand position -- one hand on sternum, the other hand just under the lower rib cage -- seems enormously comforting to do that when I get the feeling you described. (I think it mattered which hands you used, but I forget which way it was.)

Anyone else know the essay "Once More To The Lake," by EB White? He describes what to me seems like this same thought, but describes it as a chilling of the loins. Done in context of the story, but it always seemed wrong to me because I thought it should be in the chest like you describe.
posted by salvia at 8:18 AM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Phred182 - (1) I know exactly what you are referring to, as if to suggest "it feels good to learn." Right? If you discover any info on this phenomenon, please share. I wondered if I was the only one (is anyone ever?)
posted by AllesKlar at 8:27 AM on May 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think there are differing levels of the flutter, and based on the experience I may feel it from around the groin all the way up to my head. This reinforces the theory that chakras may be connected.

My head flutters are always the strongest and usually involve some kind of visual "pinch" (thats what I call it.) There is tremendous visual energy for a split second, almost like the flashbulb on a camera going off, and then nothing. I feel the head flutter INSIDE simultaneously and the overall feeling is very euphoric, as compared the the melancholy and comfortably uncomfortable feelings from the chest flutters. I also get the disctinct impression that the head flutter is part of a transaction - something is being imparted on me, be it energy or information or whatever, and I am participating in the acquisition of it. It may just be a way to make significant moments in my life more significant, or a metaphor my brain uses to reinforce personal growth.
posted by cbecker333 at 9:24 AM on May 5, 2006

I'm convinced it is some kind of adrenaline rush. This feeling comes and goes for me with great regularity according to where I am in my menstrual cycle. I therefore attribute its cause to something deeply biological, on the order of our fish brain waving its gills every few seconds.

It has become something of a game for me, separating the feeling from the thoughts that gather around it. The thoughts like to pretend they are the cause but all they are doing is putting clothes on this more primordial sensation.
posted by macinchik at 12:54 PM on May 5, 2006

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