Science Sheds Light On What Happens To Your Brain During A Breakup
by Alanna Ketler
This is really interesting. Have you ever noticed that after a breakup its like all bad memories of your ex significant other have been completely erased, and all you can remember is the good moments and times you’ve shared? A breakup takes you right back to the beginning of the relationship when things were still cute, fresh, new, and exciting.
Are We Literally Addicted To Love?
Everything that reminds you of your partner, whether it be a memory, photograph, smell, place – you name it, triggers the reward neurons inside of the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area of the brain. These areas of the brain actually light up when the people who are at the ‘puppy dog’ stage of new love are asked to look at photographs of their partners. Interestingly enough, these are the same areas of the brain that light up when given cocaine or heroin.
Can you relate?
When the reward neurons are turned on, repeated floods of the neurotransmitter dopamine are released, which then activates circuits in the brain, creating a craving for more. In the case of a new relationship, what you need more of is your new partner. This is what will give you the dosage of dopamine that you are literally craving.
Eventually, after the initial high from the early stages of a relationship wear off and a more long-term partnership develops, the obsession fades away. You almost build up a tolerance to it as you become used to the feeling. After a breakup happens, memories of the way things used to be with your partner come back with a vengeance, and the brain starts looking for its romantic fix – but doesn’t get the usual responses it expects. Have you ever noticed how crazy and irrational people can become during a breakup? They are looking for their next fix, much like a drug addict looking for their next high.
Love Hurts And The Pain Is Real
It is incredibly interesting to consider how the emotional pain of a breakup can actually be felt physically. You know, the tightness in your chest, nausea in your stomach. Two studies (linked below) looked at the brain activity of people who were going through a breakup and found that the reward systems were not the only areas of the brain which had been activated, but also the regions of the brain which control distress and physical pain. The areas of the brain that capture pain sensations were quiet, but the systems those are tied to, the ones that determine how the body reacts to pain, were telling the body that something bad or “painful” was happening. The brain controls functions of the body, which can lead to the release of stress hormones, which in turn can have grave impacts on the body’s well-being. Breakups can actually lead to some pretty extreme conditions, such as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as “broken heart syndrome,” which is caused by the heart weakening and expanding under this kind of emotional stress. Although rare, this can lead to death.
What Can You Do?
Unfortunately the best cure for dealing with breakups is time. Eventually you will lose your obsession and begin to make new memories. Have you ever been in a relationship that ended and your partner got a new love interest right away? They appear to be completely over the breakup, but this is most likely because their need for love, their addiction, is still being satisfied. There’s a reason we warn people against these kinds of “rebound” relationships.
When you begin to have memories of your ex-lover, just try to think of the reasons that you broke up in the first place, even write some of them down to help remind yourself in times of weakness. This should help with the obsessive memories that, realistically, are probably not even that accurate anyways. It is important to appreciate the relationship for what it taught you and move on to new experiences.