The Science Behind Heartbreak And How To Heal

Going through a breakup or a heartache? Here’s the science behind why your heart aches and some tips on how to get back up.

Photo by Vinicius Amano

It’s the chemicals that are causing you to idealize your ex
When we are in lust, we have rose-tinted glasses that highlights only the positive qualities of the apple of our eye, and not the negative ones. Research shows that in the throes of love, the part of our brain responsible for processing judgment and negative emotions, the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, switches off. Simultaneously, the reward areas of the brain are switched on, encouraging you (subconsciously) to keep the bonding and attachment going. The chemical cocktail that occurs in the lust phase of a relationship is deeply wired in our brains and has everything to do with nature priming us to procreate. Generally, these changes in chemical and hormonal reactions last on average of eight months to two years, which explains why newly smitten lovers often idealize their partner — magnifying their partner’s virtues and justifying their flaws.

Breakup sex is causing you to stay addicted to the person
Near the center of the brain lies the deep limbic system. This part of the brain sets the emotional tone of the mind, promotes bonding, stores highly charged emotional memories and modulates motivation and libido. Whenever you have sex with someone, neurochemical changes occur in your brain that encourage limbic emotional bonding. In other words, while you may think you are just having casual sex, you are maintaining and establishing an emotional bond whether you like it or not. Note that females have a larger limbic system than men and will typically be more limbically connected. So if you’re trying to get over someone, literally, do not get on top of them! Sex with the ex is stopping those chemical limbic bonds to break.

You’re craving your ex because your brain is in withdrawal
When newly in lust, you’ll experience a bunch of feelings that will feel liberating and exciting to the point of addiction. But do you feel that way because you really met “the one” or is that your brain tricking you? Anthropologist Helen Fisher points out that “Love is not an emotion — it’s a motivation system, it’s a drive, it’s part of the reward system of the brain.” Know the chemicals that are driving you crazy and perhaps you’ll get more clarity in your decision making.

That exhilarating rush of pleasure and excitement? That’s dopamine. Sweaty palms, increased heartbeat, overwhelming sexual desire? That’s testosterone. That warm, cuddly feeling of connecting after sex? Blame it on oxytocin (also released when a woman gives birth and when breastfeeding, designed to make you bond). The constant thoughts of the apple of your eye, replaying like a movie reel? That’s due to low serotonin (associated with obsessive thinking).
 Just like how chemicals are released when getting together with someone new, there are also chemical reactions that occur when getting over an ex.

Research suggests that people may crave their ex-partner similarly to the way addicts crave a drug they are withdrawing from. Studies show that recently broken up singles show activity in the ventral segmental area of the brain (which is associated with reward and motivation and specifically, the release of dopamine), that is also seen in drug addiction. Understand that in time, the chemicals fade — whether falling in love, or falling out of love.

You need community more than ever
Your natural instinct may be to isolate yourself and sulk in private, but this is probably the worst thing you can do. Community increases your feel-good hormones and studies show that talking can have healing effects. A UCLA study reveals that spending time with close friends causes the brain to release natural opioids, which are like the painkillers found in opium. When you lose the familiarity, daily routine and stability of a relationship, it is important that you surround yourself with people who make you feel safe, loved and cared for.

Or check into a breakup bootcamp. Renew is a new company that hosts retreats for people who’ve recently gone through a breakup. Their program bridges the gap between science and spirituality to help you process emotions and patterns from the past and rewire your subconscious mind to help you have healthier relationships in the future.

Recognize a bridge when you see one
Missed connections happen all the time, and it’s important to remember that just because it doesn’t work out with someone, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. If you plan on having one long term partner for life, then that means 99% of the time, the person you date isn’t going to be ‘the one’. Look at it this way, when it doesn’t work out with someone, you’re just getting closer to meeting your right match (granted that you learn and grow from each relationship).

Know that some relationships were only ever meant to be a bridge, not a destination. Know that love is not a scarce resource and that there is no such thing as one person that’s meant for you. Love is a choice. Love is not a possession that you either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’. Love, is an action, and the good news is, you can create that action of love over and over again.

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Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on January 26, 2017.