“Turning on the reward neurons releases repeated floods of the neurotransmitter dopamine. And the dopamine activates circuits inside the brain that create a craving…In the case of romance, the thing you need more of is your beloved.” – Diane Kelly
We’re going to assume, at least for the sake of this article, that someone you once loved someone did not end up becoming “the one.”
Many people reading this article will concede that a such an unfortunate occasion has happened at least once.
The underlying concept you’ll see throughout the article is this: the brain’s complex – and often, unknowable – intricately woven circuitry produces complex feelings that arise from any and all situations; whether positive or negative.
Of course, this includes any relationship that has gone awry.
The motivation behind this article is to explain what happens to the brain following a painful breakup. The benefit of such knowledge is noteworthy in the sense that we will gain a more comprehensive understanding of the neurocircuitry that accompanies a hard felt separation.
It is our hope, then, that this knowledge will enable you to understand why such emotions occur – and what you can do as a rational being to make the best out of a tough situation.
HUMANS ARE HARDWIRED FOR LOVE
Anyone remember the 1980’s commercial “This is your brain on drugs?” This commercial was a well-intended (though rudimentary) depiction of what occurs in the human brain during drug use. Whether or not one is a fan of this ad, it is challenging to object its effectiveness. Following extensive research, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America reproduced a more intensive version of the commercial following a sizeable decrease in drug abuse cases.
As it turns out, the human brain reacts similarly to love. According to Psychology Today, “love has probably started more schoolyard fights, adult feuds, and outright wars than every other catalyst combined – money, alcohol, drugs, politics, sports, etc.”
Simply put, the numerous effects of love on the brain are strikingly similar to those produced by drugs. Similar to how drugs can induce a stagnant effect on the human brain, love (especially deep love) can result in the same – if not exacerbated – neurological effects.
A neuroscientist at the Einstein College of Medicine explains love’s effect on the brain as follows: “Other kinds of social rejection are much more cognitive…(Romantic rejection) is a life changing thing, and involves systems that are not at the same level as feeling hungry or thirsty.”
In other words, when someone we love rejects us, it is as harmful, if not more so, to the brain than social needs (friendships) and primal needs (sustenance).
Wow…can’t say we saw that coming. Wonder what Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil would say on the matter. Anyway, digression aside let’s get down to it.
THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS TO YOUR BRAIN AFTER A BREAKUP
When we separate or reject somebody who we love, the physical effects – shallow breathing, nausea, chest constriction, etc. – are all very real phenomena.
Studies demonstrate that individuals in the midst of a breakup show disproportionate activity in the brain regions that determine the body’s response to physical pain and distress. This is potentially dangerous; and again, the more intimate the relationship, the likelier that adverse and extreme harmful physical side effects arise.
Unfortunately, this counterproductive cognitive response negatively affects other physical channels; including higher blood pressure, weakening of the immune system, and complications of the digestive system. These physical symptoms may persist for days, weeks, or months following a separation; with the duration of such effects highly dependent upon the individual.
Perhaps the most tragic response to heartbreak is a condition known as Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy (aka, “Broken Heart Syndrome) which produces stress hormones in extreme excess, which can, sadly, result in a heart attack, stroke, or even death.
WHAT THIS MEANS (AND DOESN’T)
From birth to death (and perhaps beyond), human beings desire to be loved. Regardless of the rapid advancements in neuroscience, we cannot – nor should we presume to – understand the complex mechanisms of love on our brain, body, and soul.
Experience (and science) tells us that love and human existence are inseparable. On the positive side, this inseparability enables us to love and cherish those we hold dear despite any and all circumstances. On the not so positive side, such findings elaborate upon – for better or worse – our dependence on others for connection, friendship, love, and nourishment.
For those currently going through the heartbreak that many of us have endured, it’s important to know that you are not alone. Human beings, by evolutionary design, are resilient creatures. Our brains have the superlative capability of learning, adapting, and rewiring to any past, present or future situation.