Breakups are often compared to emotional rollercoasters. But if a breakup were anything like a roller coaster, the end would be visible from the start. You could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride, or choose to hop on for a hefty price and walk away with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo. Breakups, in my view, are more like being under a roller coaster.
Perhaps you’re wondering how we even got here. A particular neurotransmitter called dopamine floods the brain when something in your environment is perceived as salient to you. This, of course, has a lot to do with years of conditioning, the sum of your life experiences, and the lens through which you filter what’s relevant and what’s not. The more relevant it is to your bottom line, the more driven you are to seek it out. So yes, dopamine does provide pleasure, but that’s simply a byproduct. Dopamine’s primary purpose is to encourage behaviors that will ensure the survival of us as a species, and of us as individuals. So it is the molecule of reinforcement. Love, and more specifically, sex, is a powerful reinforcer. It’s in our genetic code to be in its constant pursuit.
It doesn’t matter how long you were with your ex-lover—a breakup kills expectations. Everything that reminds you of that person—a particular food, fond memories of travel, a whiff of his favorite cologne—triggers activity in the brain’s reward circuit.
This is the same region of the brain that lights up like a constellation of stars when scientists put people into fMRI machines and ask them to look at photos of their beloved. Conveniently, it’s also the same region implicated in compulsive behaviors like gambling, alcoholism, and illicit drug use. Throw rejection into the mix, like what one would experience after a breakup, and you end up suffering a substantial amount of dysregulation in the reward circuit for a few reasons.
For starters, we’re social beings. Our brains have been shaped by hundreds and thousands of years living in status-conscious hierarchical groups. Humans are fundamentally pack animals who have lived, and continue to live, in relatively small groups of people (so, nuclear family, extended family, lover, friends, annoying colleagues that you rub elbows with daily). These groups continue to have a pecking order of relationships based on rankings and mutually beneficial social interactions.
Yet to prosper, we walk the delicate balance between being both generous and selfish, cooperative and conflicted. We are continually seeking to assert our self-interest while remaining firmly within the good graces of the tribe. Rejection and subsequent ejection from the tribe would be akin to a death sentence from lack of these resources. In other words, if you got kicked out of the group, you would likely die, and your genes would be effectively weeded out of the gene pool. Our goal to be social is rooted in our genes’ goals to survive. Our values are our genes’ values.
Just as status-seeking is guided by the pursuit of positive emotions, we avoid rejection because we fear the physical manifestation of pain. This is, in part, why breakups are excruciatingly agonizing to stomach. Then you have the discrepancy between what your brain tags as ‘valuable’ (the boyfriend, husband, whoever), and the outcome (he cheated, he doesn’t love you anymore, he can’t deal with your brand of crazy, etc) or the predicted expectancy (we were supposed to grow old together, I never thought you would do this to me, my dreams are shattered).
When your loverboy leaves you, chances are you’re going to feel it; the pain is fucking real. Your chest gets tight; you feel like you’re going to throw up, you lose your appetite, and want to sleep all day. Two studies that examined the brain activity of those in the throes of a breakup found activity in regions that control distress and respond to physical pain. The parts of the brain that perceive pain from the external environment were quiet, but the systems that control how the body responds to pain were busy communicating that something awful was afoot.
When the love of your life leaves, the supply of feel-good hormones takes a nosedive, and the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine kick in. In small doses, stress hormones are helpful, in that they ensure we react swiftly to the threat. However, in times of long-term distress (cue broken heart), the stress hormones accumulate and wreak havoc on the body.
Without the real need for a physical response, the muscles have no opportunity to expend energy. Muscles swell–giving rise to tension headaches, a stiff neck, and tightness in the chest. To ensure muscles have adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system, causing cramps, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. With the immune system compromised, there is an increased vulnerability to bugs and illnesses–hence, the familiar “breakup cold.” The steady release of cortisol may make it difficult to sleep and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgments.
The loss of a relationship can throw you into a type of downward spiral, which is why it’s hard to function–you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him out of your head. No matter how you slice and dice it, the pain of romantic rejection can last a long time. While some may bounce back faster than others, the pain is a natural part of the process.
Some days you may feel stifled, other days you may feel duped, and some days you may feel… numb. That’s because the joy of being in that person’s arms is something you know you won’t get to experience anymore. There is a drop in oxytocin and serotonin, the molecule of love and happiness, respectively. The expectation that you’ll hear his unique ringtone when he texts—goodbye to that as your dopamine levels plummet, undermining your sense of optimism and confidence. It may drive you to seek out a false reward of reassurance and closeness with your now ex-partner, or quickly throw yourself in the arms of someone else just to distract.
So far, all the “breakup fMRI” experiments have looked at brain activity in dump-ees. Like you, science still can’t pinpoint what’s going on in the brain of a dump-er. I can only surmise that the neural pathways that were once strongly in favor of maintaining and continuing to invest in the relationship have weakened or otherwise eroded. Neural connections that aren’t used get pruned away, and the next thing you know, you’re sitting face-to-face having “the talk” of all talks (or maybe he decides to break up with you over text, adding insult to injury).
It’s not a quick-fix by any stretch of the imagination, but mentally rehearsing a life without him in a way that reframes your loss is quite helpful. So let’s try to reframe by affirming:
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