There is little doubt that strong emotions can provoke specific sensations in the rest of the body, not just mind (whatever that is...)

Emotions coordinate our behavior and physiological states during survival-salient events and pleasurable interactions. Even though we are often consciously aware of our current emotional state, such as anger or happiness, the mechanisms giving rise to these subjective sensations have remained unresolved...Emotions are often felt in the body, and somatosensory feedback has been proposed to trigger conscious emotional experiences. [emphasis mine]

-Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States

When you hear bad news, you might feel your ‘heart drop’ or have to deal with ‘heart ache.’ There’s more to these metaphors than simply describing intense emotions – they point to the fascinating way our bodies experience these feelings, both emotionally and physically. But surely that doesn't make sense - we all know that the heart is simply a symbol for love and pain, and that all the "feeling" is done by our brains. So how exactly do intense emotions trigger specific sensations in our chest? [once again, emphasis mine]


We often speak of a "heart ache", or a "broken heart", but what is the opposite (if indeed it is an opposite)?

i.e., What is an idiom or phrase that describes that expansive or compressing feeling we feel in our chest...that feeling in our chest when we contemplate one we love, or something extremely cute?

For me it happened when I saw my daughter in her quinceañera gown for the first time, or I see my puppy and her kitty sister hugging each other in the cold weather...

  • Other possibilities are 'made my heart lift' or 'made my heart sing'. Jan 26, 2019 at 9:22

2 Answers 2


It tugs on the heartstrings:

Used in reference to one's deepest feelings of love or compassion.

‘the kitten's pitiful little squeak tugged at her heartstrings’

‘Ned felt something tug at his heartstrings, sympathy overwhelming him.’
Oxford Dictionaries

Like "heartache" and "broken hearts" it doesn't have to refer to a physical sensation, but it can.

  • 1
    It is very interesting that you mention strings, as descriptions of the Enteric and Parasympathetic nervous systems seem to be just like that. Jan 25, 2019 at 20:51

There are a few different idioms that I suspect were inspired by this feeling, but most of them are used so frequently for the emotions that accompany or inspire the physical sensation that we take them more as metaphors than as physical descriptions.

For example, we often say that our heart swells with happiness or love or pride (MacMillan Dictionary). Though this could mean that our metaphorical "heart" is, metaphorically, expanding from an influx of positive emotion it also seems like a pretty good descriptor for an "expansive or compressing feeling we feel in our chest". The similar expressions "heart-full" or "[somebody's] heart is full" could spring from the same feeling.

Tug or pull or pluck the heartstrings also seems likely to have a physical origin, especially since the term "heartstrings" itself comes from an early (mis?)conception about the anatomy of the heart (Etymonline).

Personally, I call this a zing. It isn't quite as common as the two expressions above, but it has been used for the physical description. It sometimes appears in conjunction with "heartstrings", as in two Judy Garland standards, "Zing! Went the strings of my heart" (Youtube) and "The Trolley Song" (also Youtube):

Clang, clang, clang went the trolley
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings
From the moment I saw him I fell

I haven't found this exact definition for zing, but examples of its use abound:

My feelings are felt in my chest – a pang in my chest when I may be doing the wrong thing, a vibrant zing when my body approves, guiding me at times when logic fails.

Yvette V. Lapayese, Mother-Scholar: (Re)imagining K-12 Education, 2012, quoting a study participant's journal

A delicious zing of electricity rocketed around in my chest, and I smiled. . . . The zing came again, but this time it felt more tender. For a second I was worried I might cry. But then it passed.

Katherine Howe, Conversion, 2014

After seven months of marriage she still got a zing through her chest every time he smiled.

Jennifer Lee, A Wild Goose Chase Christmas, 2012

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