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This Is Your Brain on a Breakup

Breakups can trigger withdrawal, just as you would feel after giving up a drug.

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For most of us, breaking up is almost inevitable at some point in life. A survey of college students at Case Western Reserve University found that more than 90 percent of both men and women reported rejection from someone they were still in love with, while more than 90 percent reported dumping someone who was in love with them.

In the early stages of a breakup, you may find yourself obsessing about an ex-partner, unable to concentrate on other things, and feeling bad about yourself—and your brain may be the reason why. But don't despair—another part of the brain may be able to help you recover.

Is a Breakup Like Physical Pain?

Your brain is likely to prioritize thinking about your ex-partner in the same way as it signals you to pay attention to physical pain. A study by cognitive neuroscientists at Columbia University used brain fMRI scans to look at brain activity in unmarried people who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the previous six months Participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners while thinking about shared experiences. The researchers compared the scans to when participants looked at pictures of a friend, or when they were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the ex-partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures.

These brain regions, including the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex, are associated with physical pain. Researchers disagree about whether romantic rejection is actually similar to physical pain or whether these areas light up because of “salience"—in other words, that our brains think both physical pain and photos of lost loves were important and worth attending to. For our ancestors, both pain and rejection could reduce the chances of survival—hence, our brains may be wired to pay special attention to such experiences.

Is a Breakup Like Getting Over an Addiction?

Another study, by researchers Lucy Brown and Helen Fisher, scanned the brain activity of 15 young adults who had experienced a recent unwanted breakup and reported still feeling passionately in love. Many of them were still desperately trying to get the partner back by calling at inappropriate times, sending multiple emails, and showing up places uninvited. Others were just feeling depressed and despondent.

When these participants viewed photographs of their former partners, the scans showed activity in several brain areas, including in the ventral tegmental (VTA) area, the ventral striatum, and the nucleus accumbens. These regions are parts of the brain’s reward/motivation system that communicates via release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is involved in both drug addiction and the early, obsessive stages of love.

Therefore, those who have been rejected may experience cravings for their ex-partner similar to the way addicts crave a drug or people newly in love crave the presence of their beloved. Surprisingly, it seems that these reward/motivation systems light up in similar ways regardless of whether one is happily in love or obsessing about a lost lover. When these areas light up, we are intensely driven to find the love object—and may spend much of the day thinking about them.

Can Your Brain Help You Get Over It?

Another fascinating finding of this study was that the brains of these rejected partners may have been actively trying to get them to feel better or to act more mindfully: Along with the reward pathway, there was also increased brain activity in the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus. These areas are associated with regulating emotions and inhibiting impulsive reactions. In other words, our brains appear to be wired for recovery and wiser decision-making as well as craving and obsession.

4 Things to Do to Get Over a Breakup

  1. Try not to look at pictures of your ex-partner, the gifts they gave you, or other sentimental reminders—and try to avoid the places you used to hang out together. All are likely to create dopamine-related cravings and feelings of withdrawal.
  2. Interrupt cycles of obsessive thinking and rumination. You may want to imagine a big red STOP sign when you start doing it, but don’t sit around moping about your ex. Find distracting activities—like organizing your closet, coloring in a stress-relieving coloring book, or calling a friend.
  3. Start a new exercise routine. Go running, hike, hit the gym or take a yoga class, or join a team. Exercise will make you feel better about yourself, keep you engaged, and may even bring new people and activities into your life. It can also help you feel more energetic and help combat depression. Exercise also leads to the release of brain chemicals like endogenous opioids that can create feelings of contentment. It may even get your dopamine flowing.
  4. Think about all the bad parts of the past relationship. We tend to idealize lost relationships, but you can compensate for this by deliberately thinking about when he or she acted like a jerk or was oblivious to your needs.

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Copyright: Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. 2015. All rights reserved.

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