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.
Can you explain a bit behind why some brains seek a partner or ex much like a substance abuser becomes fixated upon a certain drug?
Brain scanning studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging highlight the neural similarity between romantic love and many addictive states. Feelings of intense romantic love increase neuronal activity within the brain’s “reward system,” the same region activated during drug and/or behavioural addiction. Accordingly, the experience of romantic love shares traits of addiction, with behaviour that can become atypical and erratic.
What is it about heartbreak in particular, that can drive otherwise intelligent and reasonable people into absolute despair and at times, quite reckless behaviour?
Heartbreak is an almost universal human experience, a rite of passage that can trigger very negative behaviours. Due to the neural similarity between romantic love and addiction referred to above, heartbreak (or withdrawal from romantic love if you will) can be expressed as behaviour similar to addiction withdrawal. Emotionally hurt people can express themselves through dysfunctional emotional conditions and self-defeating behaviours such as distrust, feelings of rejection, loss of self-worth, deep-seated anger, and feelings of failure which can extend to more destructive actions such as stalking, clinical depression, suicide, homicide and other crimes of passion. The term “love addiction” can be applied to people who pathologically seek to regain the pleasurable love state from a former love relationship.
For the brains that engage heartbreak as part of their “reward” system, what are the practical tangible steps a person can take to move on?
First and foremost, if you have problems with dealing with the end of a relationship you should refer to your GP or mental health practitioner – they can provide you with a variety of options to help with a transition to a better state.
To avoid or move past heartbreak, people should always be involved in a diversity of “self-expanding activities” such as friends, family, volunteer organisations, spiritual groups, hobbies and sports. Such activities can be challenging, exciting and interesting, promoting an enhanced sense of self and increase self-esteem. It is recommended that a person has more than one source of self-expansion, so that if a partner leaves there are other sources (e.g., a book club, sports team, volunteer group) to reduce the impact of loss. Importantly, these activities should not be obsessively perused (thereby aggravating personal relationships) or involve risky or potentially illegal behaviour.
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Those who are experiencing heartbreak often report physical pain such as an aching heart, tight chest and feeling sick in their stomachs. What does neuroscience say about our brains processing a relationship breakup and can it cause physical pain?
This experience is termed “somatisation”, whereby psychological distress induces somatic (i.e., “of the body”, physical) symptoms. Make no mistake that this is “all in the mind” – prolonged psychological distress such as stress and anxiety can disrupt your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis resulting in immunosuppression, hormone dysregulation and can lead to physical problems such as gastrointestinal disorders, opportunistic infection, insomnia and subsequently more stress.
For those who may have been heartbroken, what is the science behind trying to reshape their thought-life or even reject the memory connections to their ex?
The recommendations revolve around removing cues and developing new, healthy behaviours. This includes removing cues of former partner, building new daily habits, seeking professional mental health support, and being open to engage in new interests and meet new people, such as through new self-expanding activies.
For more information refer to Fisher et al., “Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction? How the Fields That Investigate Romance and Substance Abuse Can Inform Each Other” – Frontiers in Psychology (2016, May 10 – 10;7:687).
When trying to navigate your way through the emotional minefields of a breakup it is important to remember that it is normal that you may feel distressed at this time. If you are having a difficult time dealing with these emotions and thought patterns please see your GP or a mental health professional. If in Australia, you can call Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.