The Biology of a Breakup

Photo from medicaldaily.com

If you have ever experienced heartbreak, you know the sequence of events: long nights tossing and turning, questioning every decision, sleep deprivation and fatigue, putting on a strong face to the world, stalking your ex on social media, coming home listening to sad music and devouring Ben & Jerry’s.

A breakup can shake your world, cloud your vision and cause the same five words to circulate through your mind: “I don’t feel like myself.” The shift in behavior and thoughts experienced is caused by neural changes post-breakup.

Withdrawal

Our brains are wired to protect us against anything that threatens our optimal survival — including feelings of sadness and rejection. When people are staples in our lives for a while, we grow strong bonds in attachment and dependency, similar to someone who has found reliance on drugs. Falling in love and drug addiction heighten the same hormones in the brain — the levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine — to release the feeling of intense euphoria.

The absence of that: withdrawal. Therefore, people who have feelings of rejection and heartbreak experience similar “cravings” for their exes as addicts do for drugs. The reward and motivation systems in our brain work similarly. The brain’s reward system is critical in pain management; that’s why physical symptoms of obsession, “heartache” and reality distortion are more enhanced. When this feedback mechanism consumes the mind post-breakup, it’s neurologically difficult not to spend the majority of the day thinking about them.

This is why we find ourselves stalking our exes profile, so we can get our “daily fix.” In other words, we are detoxing from love.

Science Behind our Actions

After the initial withdrawal, the physical actions experienced post-breakup are scientifically justified. The most common being depression and lethargy, changes in hunger patterns and impulsivity.

What about the feeling of wanting to sleep all day? It’s a protective mechanism. Lethargy is caused by a decrease in the ability to be alert and changes in mood patterns. Even doing simple, mundane tasks seem exhausting. Post-breakup lethargy allows your mind and body to regroup and rechannel. The brain is holding you back from adverse stimuli right now to encourage reconstruction.

Hunger and romantic drive share the same reward system in the hypothalamus part of the brain. The same areas regulate appetite and satiety. Therefore, to cope with the anxiety, your brain calls these hormones to suppress hunger and slow digestion. This period does not last forever. Loss of hunger transitions then directly transfers to an increase in hunger, but for our favorite comfort foods, like Ben & Jerry’s.

The hypothalamus is also the region where sex hormones are produced. That’s why many of us are also convinced that “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone.” These sex hormones, when stimulated, provide a temporary euphoria. Once they flee, we are left feeling the same as before or worse.

Coping

According to the “Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,” researchers found that the three best ways to get over a heartbreak were to negatively reappraise your ex, finding healthy distractions and letting time do its thing.

The most important thing your brain needs post-breakup is regaining control over your life and easing the high stress survival mode activated. As much as we may think our mind is against us at these times, it is encouraging us to take the time we need to cope, to gain the control and stability it remembers.

Love resides more in the brain than in the heart.

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