The science behind heartbreak

Courtesy of Flickr
Courtesy of Flickr

Everyone knows that when you get your heart broken it really sucks. Most college-age individuals have experienced the excruciating feeling of losing a boyfriend or girlfriend, but those who haven’t yet often look at weeping, ice-cream-binging dumpees as cry babies or drama queens. The last breakup I went through, personally, was pretty dramatic; I spent most of my time lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and lip-syncing Adele. And my friends at UCR happen to be heartbreak virgins, so they didn’t understand the severity of pain that comes from losing a two-year-long romance.

Breaking up with someone you love is actually very devastating. It feels like you have lost something that you absolutely need. You can’t stop thinking about your lost love, you can’t stop rehashing what went wrong and you can’t help but long for their companionship again.

Well, when we look at what happens in the human brain during a breakup, it’s very easy to see why people react this way. The brain reacts to being dumped the same way it reacts to being cut off from an addiction. Being “in love” activates opiate receptors in the brain, which are also activated by drugs such as morphine and heroin. Yeah, that’s right: To the human brain, love is an addiction, and you are literally going through a withdrawal. No wonder you can’t stop thinking about your ex.

When experiencing heartbreak, three regions of the brain associated with intense craving become activated. Not only that, but a brain region associated with romantic love and attachment becomes active, causing people to feel even more intense love after they’ve had their heart smashed. This is why, even if your ex cheated on you or rejected you, you miss him or her like crazy (and possibly have tried calling several times to reunite).

But don’t be ashamed. Going from being in love to being in pain freaks out your brain. When you’re blissfully happy in your Instagram-worthy relationship, it causes the brain’s Ventral Tegmental Area, or VTA, to export dopamine, the same addiction hormone that makes addicts crave cocaine (at least you’re addicted to taking selfies with your “bae” and not an illegal stimulant). But when you lose your love, those areas of the brain that were once filled with feel-good chemicals are suddenly deprived. The brain instead pumps out stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. The absence of dopamine and overflow of stress hormones is a shock to your brain, body and (metaphorically) your heart.

The reason your brain is suddenly pounding you with these chemicals is because it is literally punishing you. The need to feel loved and belonged is an important goal for most people and evolution decided to install a reward-and-punishment system to help us reach this goal. Cells in the VTA, which is super-activated when we’re in love, make and distribute dopamine, a neurotransmitter critical to motivation and reward. We are equipped with mechanisms that flood our brain with happiness when we successfully find a mate, but we also have some pesky brain circuits that produce searing psychological pain when we lose that mate. In short, when we lose that love that evolution wants us to have, our brains have little hissy fits and bombard us with stress chemicals.

If you are someone who is going through a breakup and causing your body to go into stress-overload, never fear! You can fight science with science. There are many ways to reduce stress hormones and get little doses of dopamine here and there.

The first thing you can do is talk about it. People who report less pain during a breakup have more activity in the prefrontal area of the brain. This area is responsible for processing information, so it would make sense that rehashing things and stimulating your prefrontal area will ease the pain a little. It also doesn’t hurt to hear your friends assure you that you can do much better and that your ex had an annoying laugh anyway.

Second, don’t lock yourself away from the world! I know being heartbroken makes you want to curl into a ball and die, but you should instead be hanging out with friends and trying to be social. Any physical contact will trigger the release of dopamine and oxytocin, which are depleted from your system after a breakup. You want those chemicals, so go meet new people, laugh lots, elicit hugs and flirt shamelessly.

And, most importantly, go exercise. Exercise increases opiates in the brain and you are in dangerously low stock of opiates right now. Go for a long run or go to spin class to get that endorphin high. Go to a yoga class to initiate the release of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that will soothe anxiety and stress. Maybe take dance lessons to help distract yourself and create new goals for yourself. Do anything to be active and stockpile those happy chemicals that are in such short supply.

And, for those of you who look at crying over a broken heart as if it were crying over spilt milk, just realize that the heartbroken are literally addicted to that milk. Heartbreak is nothing to roll your eyes at. But, like all psychological trauma, heartbreak lessens in time and eventually, the brain will sort all its chemicals back out.

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