Just like the lungs, kidneys, or intestines, the heart is an organ. But when we experience an emotional loss, such as in the case of a romantic breakup, the death of a loved one, or a falling out with a friend, we don’t ascribe our pain to the brain or liver, we attribute it to the heart.
The Brain on Love
Dating back to Ancient Greece, the heart has been associated with love. The poet Sappho wrote “love shook my heart,” Plato argued that the chest had an important role in feeling and desire, and the goddess Venus was blamed for setting hearts on fire with the help of her son, Cupid. Even the Bible speaks of heartbreak, dating as far back as 1015 B.C.
We have many ways of expressing this pain: my heart was crushed, my heart shattered, my heart broke into pieces. But no matter what we might call it, heartbreak is a universal language and part of a shared human experience.
There are plenty of songs that compare love to a drug; they even speak of addiction and craving, like it might be an illicit substance. What the songwriters probably didn’t know is that there’s a biological reality to this. In fact, one research team turned to brain regions associated with cocaine addiction to help explain people’s behaviors post breakup (things like obsessive thinking, pounding heart, or emotional dependence).
A brain in love is kind of like a brain on drugs.
Brain scans reveal that love activates the brain’s reward system – particularly, dopamine-rich areas. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that signals to us that whatever we experienced was worthwhile and we should get more of it. When it comes to drugs like cocaine and nicotine, the experienced “high” is partially due to a dopamine spike in the brain. And people are encouraged to seek out this high over and over again. Love has a similar effect. However, it’s associated with other feel-good neurochemicals as well, including oxytocin (the bonding hormone), and serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved with mood regulation and happiness.
A brain in love is kind of like a brain on drugs. It gets used to this neurochemical concoction that provides the feel-good experience of being in love. When we lose this supply, our brains go into a “neurological withdrawal.” And much like people coming off addictive substances, we get anxious, depressed, and desperate for a “fix.” This might come in the form of reckless activities that provide a dopamine surge, such as drugs and one-night stands.
Heartbreak Hurts for Real
But heartbreak isn’t just some chemical fusion that exists in the depths of the brain – it legitimately hurts. Maybe it’s a dull kind of pain in the background, or maybe it’s a crushing sensation that makes it hard to breathe.
In one study, participants who had recently experienced an unwanted breakup viewed photos of their ex and were prompted to think about this rejection. The researchers found that the brain experienced rejection and physical pain in similar ways, such that, both of these experiences activated the same brain regions. And because of this overlap, acetaminophen (the active ingredient in Tylenol) can successfully reduce the hurt feelings associated with rejection – like it would a headache! So while you may be cognizant that your pain wasn’t brought upon by physical injury, your brain might not be able to tell the difference all that well.
Acetaminophen can successfully reduce the hurt feelings associated with rejection.
There’s even a temporary heart condition called the “broken heart syndrome” which can land a person in the emergency room. It mimics the symptoms of a heart attack, such as chest pain and shortness of breath, and electrocardiogram readings look similar to those of a person who genuinely suffered a heart attack. This is typically brought on by extremely stressful events, such as the death of one’s romantic partner.
What to do? In the case of romantic breakups, Dr. Mike Dow suggests going sober for a month. As in: don’t contact your ex, don’t stalk him on social media, and definitely don’t make a dramatic appearance at his house or workplace. A quick high here and there is not going to make you happy in the long-term and will only drag out the breakup longer than it needs to be. Give your brain some time to sober up right at the start.
A brain in withdrawal will crave the feel-good chemicals it’s missing out on. Instead of satiating these cravings with alcohol or rebound partners, spend some time with friends and family, and pick up new hobbies to keep yourself busy.
Make a list of all the things you didn’t like about your ex, as well as the relationship.
Dr. Guy Winch reminds us that in the midst of heartbreak, people tend to idealize their ex and the relationship by focusing on their ex’s good qualities, remembering the good times, and ignoring all the fights, frustrations, and unmet needs, effectively distorting reality. If this is you, make a list of all the things you didn’t like about your ex, as well as the relationship. Whenever you find yourself daydreaming about what could have been, read this list to remind yourself why the relationship ended.
Heartbreak sucks. No amount of mental gymnastics or over-intellectualization will change this fact. But there are ways to come out the other side a little quicker. Give your brain a break, find healthy ways to fill the void, and don’t stray too far from the reality of what was your relationship.
And if you’re not quite ready for it today, grab yourself a bucket of ice cream and try again tomorrow.
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