The Science of Heartbreak

Science of Heartbreak

Heartbreak is a natural part of life, as you try out different partners in your search for “the one.” Some relationships end fairly calmly and rationally, while others flame out in a spectacular emotional display. Either way, though, you will go through a grieving process. Even if your head knows that the breakup was for the best, your heart must mourn the loss of what could have been. Have you ever wondered why heartbreak is so universal, and so exquisitely painful? Here is a look at what science has to say.

Brain Mapping

Science provides us with a simple way to find out what is actually happening in the brains of people who are in love, as well as those who have been recently jilted. A process known as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) can create a detailed, accurate map of the brain’s more than 100 billion individual cells. Tracking the tiny bits of iron in each blood cell can determine which areas of the brain have more blood flow and, hence, must be working harder.

Brain mapping studies show that love is an addiction. That is, the brain reacts extremely similarly to the loss of love as it does to withdrawals from a drug. Passionate cravings, obsessive thoughts, separation anxiety, physical and emotional dependency, reality distortion, and a loss of self-control are hallmarks of withdrawal from both substances and love.

Phases of Heartbreak

When considered through the lens of the brain mapping results, the phases of grief that accompany heartbreak make perfect sense. Grief is often divided into five stages, and it is not unusual to jump back and forth between stages. These stages can be grouped into two main phases: Protest and Resignation.

The Protest phase includes the grief stages of denial, anger, and bargaining. During these early weeks or months, it is normal to swing wildly between emotional extremes. You might find yourself sobbing one moment, screaming in rage the next, and then making elaborate plans to seduce your ex into returning. This is part of the neurochemical withdrawal reaction. Your brain craves the love that it experienced, and it is desperate to get it back.

The Resignation phase encompasses the final two grief stages, depression and acceptance. When your brain finally cuts through the extremes and realizes the finality of the breakup, it is normal to feel hopeless and overwrought. Lethargy, sleeping too much, losing pleasure in things you previously enjoyed, and struggling to get through the day are all common reactions. Eventually, though, assuming that you successfully resolved the earlier grief stages, you will learn to accept your new reality. You will begin to build new traditions, find solace in friends and family, and invest in new hopes and dreams. Many people never “get over” a major heartbreak, but they learn to “get through” it, developing a new and worthwhile life.

Getting Through Your Pain

To successfully make it through heartbreak, treat it as you would any other addiction. Go cold turkey, or what is often known as No Contact. Delete your ex from your contact list and social media. Let mutual friends know that you have no interest in hearing about that person. Hide all mementos from the relationship in a box at the back of your closet. Just like a single drink can trigger an alcoholic relapse, even a small reminder of your ex can send you spiraling into fresh anguish and emotional extremes. Later, when you have both fully accepted and integrated the breakup, you might be able to be friends. For now, it is impossible, so put the idea out of your mind.

Find a mantra. Create a short saying that affirms your value and self-esteem, while stating your intentions for the future. For example, you might say, “I love having time for my hobbies, and will find a partner who shares my passions.” Repeat it several times a day—in front of the mirror, in the shower, or while commuting to work.

Focus on positivity. No matter how sad, angry, or anxious you feel, find a way to absorb positive energy. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Make a list of the people who love you unconditionally. Spend time with your happiest friend. Positive emotions, no matter how fleeting, can dampen your negativity and help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Stay busy. Even if you feel exhausted, overwhelmed, and at the end of your rope, get dressed and go somewhere. Take a walk through the park or hit the gym. Exercise creates natural feel-good chemicals in your brain, which can help minimize the neurochemical effects of the breakup. Sunlight regulates your biological rhythms, helping you to sleep better at night, and also improves mood. Try new things, especially those that increase your heart rate and give you a mild adrenaline rush. The powerful brain chemicals released during thrilling activities can overwhelm the painful withdrawals.

Take a mild painkiller. Stay away from narcotics, alcohol, and other addictive substances, as your brain could easily substitute one addiction for another. But studies show that emotional trauma can cause physical pain, and mild pain relievers such as acetaminophen can help.

Get help. Like any other addictive withdrawal, heartbreak is best managed with outside support. Join a support group. See a therapist. Talk things over with a friend who has been through it. Whatever you choose, just keep talking. Venting your feelings to a sympathetic ear can help you work through them, and you will receive helpful suggestions for managing the emotions that can seem truly overwhelming.

Looking for verifiable information on the science of attraction and relationships? We’re a neuroscientist and a biological anthropologist eager to help you put the Anatomy of Love to work in your own life.

Written by: Lisa Fritscher