This piece was updated on 11/10/19 to include further research.
The human body is incredible. Remember that illustration of how boobs actually look like little flowers that went viral? Blew my mind. This week, I learned something else fascinating about boobs, but this time it was about nipples.
While firmly wedged in a Reddit hole at the healthy time of 2.30am (I have a very vibrant social life), I was scrolling through the Today I Learned subreddit (where people submit interesting things they’ve learned, if the title wasn’t self-explanatory) and came across something called Sad Nipple Syndrome.
A woman told me her nipples being touched provoked feelings ‘as if I was a child and my mum is about to tell me off for doing something really naughty.’
The original poster was actually referring to dysphoric milk ejection reflex, where breastfeeding mothers experience negative emotions upon lactation. But a lot of the comments underneath were from people who didn’t lactate but felt ‘weird’ when their nipples were touched, and so ‘Sad Nipple Syndrome’ caught on, before creeping across various other forums around the internet. Now, Women’s Health, Virtual Popstar (sure) and a couple of other sites have Sad Nipple Syndrome discussions. Not loads, but enough to be intriguing. When I started reaching out to see if I could speak to anyone who experienced it, I thought it’d be pretty tricky. I tentatively tweeted, and got 15 messages in 10 minutes. None of them from pregnant women, all of them euphoric to discover they weren’t alone. And the post-nipple-touch emotions are way more complex than I could have imagined.
“I remember years ago, on a whim, I said to my boyfriend at the time, ‘when you touch your nipples, does it make you feel jealous?’ to which he replied, ‘what, like because other people are touching nicer ones?’ which wasn’t really what I’d been going for,” says Olivia, 27, who works in PR in Kent. “But that was how I thought of it for a long time, less like sadness and more like a wave of jealousy would come over me.”
Jen, a writer/performer from Nottinghamshire, only had a brief dalliance with Sad Nipple Syndrome before it mysteriously disappeared when she became sexually active. “The best way of describing it is homesickness for a place to which I couldn’t return,” she says of the feeling. “It subsided fairly quickly but was acute at the time, much like déjà vu.”
Another woman, Tracey, told me her nipples being touched provoked feelings “as if I was a child and my mum is about to tell me off for doing something really naughty, or if I had done something wrong and had to confront it.” One woman messaged to tell me that nipple-touching made her incredibly angry. Hulk nipple! Another felt a nostalgia that bordered on nausea. Nineties kid nipple! Another, like she’d lost something and couldn’t quite find it. Finding Nem-ipple!
Everyone I spoke to, though, agreed that this deeply personal feeling lasted between 10 and 20 seconds upon first nip touch, and subsided once all contact had been discontinued. Also, none of them knew it was A Thing, either assuming they were abnormal or presuming it was a normal part of life for everyone.
I have sometimes deliberately touched my own nipples to bring on the feeling, because I knew it would feel nice when I stopped and the horrible feeling went away, like my own little drug.
But there seem to be huge differences, too. While Jen’s homesick feelings subsided when she started having sex, Olivia’s jealousy fully vanishes during bonking and returns when she’s in a resting state, and Tracey’s guilt stays constant, meaning she can’t really get her nips involved in her sex life. The way they cope with the feelings varies from person to person as well; while it barely affects Tracey’s life, Olivia uses the emotions as a sort of coping mechanism.
“I have sometimes deliberately touched my own nipples to bring on the feeling, because I knew it would feel nice when I stopped and the horrible feeling went away, like my own little drug,” she says. “I was never really worried, I just thought it was weird. It’s really just a strange little quirk to me.”
So what exactly is going on here? Why do some people have such intense nipple-related feelings, while others (like me) are left a tad disappointed by their lack of nip creativity? The bizarre thing is that most medical professionals appear never to have heard of it.
I tried asking physicians, GPs, psychologists and obstetricians, and accidentally called the press office of a law firm where, in retrospect, the woman on the phone should have interrupted me a lot sooner than she did. Apart from her, the response was always a version of “In all my (insert big number) years of experience, I’ve never heard of this!” before suggesting I contact The Royal College of Midwives. Who had also never heard of it. Everyone I asked quite clearly, if politely, thought I was bonkers.
Oh! I thought. Another female issue that we don’t know anything about because of the ingrained misogyny within medical and scientific research! Just like the differences in male and female contraception! And how endometriosis is still being misdiagnosed despite it affecting one in 10 women worldwide!
Except it isn’t. Because a couple of women had got in touch with me about their boyfriends, saying they experienced a similar thing “but would rather die than speak to you about it”, which reminded me that we have no clue about the Sad Nipple Syndrome gender split. It may be a mainly female issue, or it may be a mainly male one. Or maybe it’s overwhelmingly experienced by chickens. Who knows.
I can hardly fault the medical profession for a lack of knowledge when none of the case studies I spoke to had talked to a doctor about what was happening. Why would you? It’s not exactly a medical emergency or really even a medical problem, and if we’re honest, it’d be quite a thing to bring up. I can’t discuss thrush with my GP without my arse disappearing up its own arse (which probably isn’t helping the thrush).
The more we chat about it, the quicker we can unite the emotionally nippled.
Similarly, I think we’d all prefer medical researchers to focus on combating breast cancer or discovering the cure for Alzheimer’s over short-term nipple-based homesickness, no matter how fascinating it is.
There is, as journalist Eleanor Morgan found and wrote about in her brilliant book Hormonal: A Conversation About Women’s Bodies, Mental Health And Why We Need To Be Heard, just one study from 2011 that related to the idea. It came from Dr Barry Komisaruk, a psychologist who was researching the neuropsychology of the female orgasm. For his study, he asked participants to stimulate their erogenous zones while strapped into a brain scanner. As Eleanor notes, “you hope decent modesty curtains were positioned, or that they were playing one of Chopin’s Nocturnes gently through the speakers.”
What Komisaruk found was that nipple stimulation lit up the area of the brain where genital sensations were received, which makes it possible that nipple stimulation could trigger oxytocin release (a hormone involved in breastfeeding and bonding) even if a woman isn’t breastfeeding.
Thing is, we don’t need medical researchers to tell us why this happens. We actually just need people to be more open about things, so that those of us with nip-based emotions don’t feel so alone. Considering so few of those who came forward knew others felt similarly, perhaps it’s time to start chatting about our nips more to our mates. “Yeah work is good thanks, but hey, do you get a deep sense of regret when you fondle your boob-hats?”
Or maybe we do it in a less terrifyingly blunt way? It’s a slow process, sure, but articles like this one, and other forums like Reddit and Quora will surely start to guide Sad Nipple Syndrome into the mainstream. The more we chat about it, the quicker we can unite the emotionally nippled, and spark the interest of researchers not involved in other, far more pressing matters, and with some spare time and cash on their hands. To be honest, I’m not NOT considering going back to university to do a PhD on Sad Nipple Syndrome.
Undoubtedly there are so many more bizarre physical quirks that we’re not fully aware of. For example, while my boobs may be boring, a guy tweeted me the other day to get in touch if I ever wanted to discuss “the exact same feeling, but when someone sticks their finger in your belly button”, and I suddenly realised that I totally experience this. If I put my finger in my belly button I feel a sense of disgust mingled with overpowering dread. My boyfriend once did it as a joke and I nearly knocked him out. How had I not realised this before? It blew my mind all over again; the human body really is incredible. Oh, and if you also feel like this about the belly button thing, please tweet me. It’s an absolute joy to feel like you’re not the only one.
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