My first serious relationship did not end so much as it disappeared. Instead of breaking up with me, my boyfriend cut off all communication, hoping I’d figure out the rest. After frantic texts, voicemails, and messages sent by carrier pigeon went unanswered, I did. A crushing pain consumed me, and I couldn’t get rid of the knots in my stomach. I also couldn’t bring myself to eat, sleep, or even watch TV.
In short, I was a mess. But I was also having a normal, if intense, response to a breakup.
When we’re in love, we produce a stream of dopamine that lights up the reward center of the brain. It feels good, and because the reward center is also the seat of goal-oriented behavior, we are motivated to seek out that feeling again and again. It’s not the most romantic view of love, but it’s how our brain sees it.
Addicted To Love
After a relationship ends, you know it’s over, but the reward center of your brain does not. Just like a person using nicotine or cocaine needs to re-up to continue feeling good, a brain in love is always looking for its next hit of feel-good neurotransmitters. When they don’t arrive, the brain is not happy, and it responds much like an addict’s brain when it goes into withdrawal.
Although David Chester Ph.D., assistant professor of social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, agrees there are certain addictive elements to love, he corrects me for calling heartbreak “withdrawal.” “We have to be careful with that word. Withdrawal is a very prescribed syndrome of symptoms and can be fatal,” he says. “Outside of Shakespeare, it’s hard to find true love withdrawal with people going into seizures or things like that.”
Love Hurts, Really
Heartbreak may not trigger full-on withdrawal, but anyone who’s felt a crushing weight in their chest, a knot in their stomach, and sore muscles throughout their body after a breakup knows the pain is not simply in their head.
This is because the brain processes social injuries as if they were physical ones. A 2011 study conducted at the University of Michigan demonstrated this when it found overlap between the regions of the brain that activate when a person is burned by hot coffee and the ones that light up when a jilted lover recalls their ex.
Breakups can activate two pain networks in the body: the affective pain circuit and the somatic-sensory pain network. Affective pain is more about emotional distress than physical aches. Somatic-sensory pain, however, is less common and more severe, and it is responsible for bodily pain.
“This pain triggers the sympathetic nervous system, a response to stress you probably know as ‘fight or flight,’” says Chester. The result is your body being in a constant state of panic as it tries to figure out how to react. If you’ve ever blocked an ex on social media only to track their every move the next day, you’re familiar with this back-and-forth.
The result is your body being in a constant state of panic as it tries to figure out how to react. If you’ve ever blocked an ex on social media only to track their every move the next day, you’re familiar with this back-and-forth.
Hunt, Gather, Love
Once the fight-or-flight response is triggered, our brains are effectively in survival mode. Therapist Rachel Osterlind, LMSW, believes we’d all benefit from remembering the instincts that correspond to this state of mind.
“It all goes back to the hunter-gatherer mentality. Our brains are always going to reward us for things that help us survive — things like sex, eating, and anger,” says Osterlind. “Back in the day, if you were all by yourself, you were probably going to get eaten by a bear.” That’s why the brain can panic when someone leaves us: It views being alone as an existential threat.
This survival instinct is why rebounds can feel so satisfying; however, Osterlind doesn’t recommend them, especially if you’re in the throes of heartbreak. Yes, it may make you feel better for a bit, but it’s often a distraction that delays you from doing the real work of moving on.
“You need to feel the hurt, anger, and isolation of a breakup,” says Osterlind. “It’s never good to suppress anything. It will all pile up.” Sweeping emotions under the rug doesn’t make them disappear. They are the body’s way of evaluating an experience, and studies have found repressing them can increase anxiety, diminish feelings of contentment, and trigger the body’s stress response.
Now that you know how your brain reacts to a breakup, you can respond accordingly. All standard-issue advice about spending time with others and not isolating yourself applies here, but also consider obliging your survival instinct with activities that put you first.
“I always tell my clients to find things that inspire them rather than find things that make them happy,” says Osterlind. “Creating and being inspired motivates you to move forward. That’s what you want, and that’s what’s going to feel good. You need to be in activities that are helping you survive.”
If you’re not ready for that, try reframing your ex as something that’s bad for you. Make a list of things you didn’t like about your ex or your relationship with them. A 2018 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found the only cognitive and behavioral strategy that reduced affection for an ex was focusing on the negative. After all, knowing what you should avoid is part of survival, too.