Heartbreak — Part two: Neuroscientist, Sean Hatton

In part two of TBS’ 5-part series exploring heartbreak, relationship counsellor Hailee Walker speaks to Neuroscientist Dr Sean Hatton on what happens to our brains when heartbroken.

They say that breaking up is hard to do, and they are absolutely right! Ending a relationship can be incredibly difficult for even the most resilient among us. When the decision to end the relationship is our own, it can leave us feeling disappointed, heartbroken and completely lost. When it is our partner’s decision to leave us, our mental and emotional health can suffer to the point that it can cause us physical pain. Some people even report feeling like they are going through a type of withdrawal process and that in some way, they feel addicted to their ex.

Why does breaking up hurt so much? And how does one begin to put the pieces back together after such a life event? Perhaps understanding the nature of the beast can help to tame the beast. In an effort to learn more about what is happening to us on a cerebral level, I asked Dr Sean Hatton, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, California/Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, to explain the neuroscience behind breakups.

There has been very little evidence around the whys of love, but from a neuroscience point of view, there has been evidence that love can fall into the broader term of addiction. Can you explain in layman’s terms why that is?

Throughout evolution, romantic love appears to be a natural, “normal altered state” experienced by almost all humans. Romantic love can be considered a positive addiction when the relationship is reciprocated, non-toxic and appropriate, or a harmful, negative addiction when unreciprocated, toxic, inappropriate and/or formally rejected. The early stages of intense romantic love share many symptoms of substance, non-substance or behavioural addictions, such as euphoria, craving, tolerance, emotional and physical dependence, withdrawal and relapse. While addiction is considered a negative (harmful) disorder within a minority of the population, romantic love is often a positive (and negative) state experienced by the majority of the population. Due to this flexibility in expression and experience, researchers have not categorised romantic love as a chemical or behavioural addiction despite behavioural and neuronal similarities.

Prolonged psychological distress can result in immunosuppression, hormone dysregulation and can lead to physical problems such as gastrointestinal disorders, opportunistic infection, insomnia and subsequently more stress.

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