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The Neuroscience of Broken Hearts: This Happens in Your Body After a Romantic Breakup

In Recent Decades, Several Studies Have Sought to Unravel at a Scientific Level Why we Fall in Love and Why Heartbreak has the Ability to Impact a Person so Profoundly. Find Out what Science Says About Broken Hearts.

Woman blowing up a heart shaped balloon

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LatinAmerican Post | Joshua Radesca

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Leer en español: La neurociencia del despecho: esto pasa en tu cuerpo tras una ruptura amorosa

Romantic love is a human universal, in every society, at all times, it has been present in one way or another. There are countless legends, books, movies, comics, among others, that speak of this. Another great present throughout the history of humanity is the counterpart of this feeling, heartbreak, the one that occurs when one of the parties decides to dissolve the emotional bond built. With the recent song "Despechá" by Rosalía and the death of Darío Gómez, known as "El Rey del despecho" (The King of the Broken Heart) in Colombia, this theme has become fashionable again.

Those who do not want to experience a breakup usually describe the loss of their partner as something distressing, painful, where the main thought is to have that special being who filled them with happiness and joy back.

At a psychological and physical level, there are various reactions that occur in an individual when they have to face this type of situation, therefore, there are multiple studies carried out with the intention of glimpsing what happens. In this text, we will share with you some of the most important data provided by the most recent scientific studies on heartbreak.

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Love as addiction

To understand heartbreak, we must start from what causes it, love. When an individual is in love, the levels of dopamine and oxytocin rise in their brain, which makes them feel attachment and pleasure. These substances are responsible for the feeling of well-being associated with the loved one and those that encourage us to get hooked on love.

A study directed by Helen E. Fisher and published in the Journal of Neuropsychology indicates that many psychologists consider romantic love to be a kind of addiction, since it presents characteristics of one of these, such as "the intensely focused attention of the lover in a preferred individual, mood swings, yearning, obsession, compulsion, reality distortion, emotional dependency, personality changes, risk taking, and loss of self-control.” He also explains that romantic love has the quality of being a constructive form of addiction when the affection is reciprocated, but potentially quite destructive when it is not.

That is why a breakup has the ability to generate strong emotions that are difficult to control. The rejected individual, not being together with the loved one, no longer produces those substances that made him feel good and to which he was accustomed. Enter what can be called a period of withdrawal, comparable to that experienced by someone trying to quit a drug.

"Romantic love and cocaine addiction behaviors share activation of the survival system in the brain, which helps explain the strength of obsession." It also indicates the aforementioned study.

This gives reason for the conduct of those who have been rejected. This withdrawal produces several of those negative emotions and sensations associated with a period of heartbreak. In the first phase of a breakup, the stress hormone cortisol begins to be released and serotonin levels drop, undermining the ability to think rationally. All this drives people to want to recover the source of that lost well-being.

The pain of heartbreak

When a breakup occurs, it's normal for people to say that the pain of this situation makes them feel like they have a broken heart, a hole in their chest, or a knot in their stomach. This, more than a metaphor, highlights the link between physical and emotional pain.

“Psychologists reason that the neural circuitry for physical pain and emotional pain evolved to share the same pathways to alert protohumans to danger; physical and emotional pain, when saber-toothed tigers lurked in the bush, were signals to pay close attention or risk death," Meghan Laslocky, author of "The Little Book of Heartbreak," explains in an article.

This means that, as far as the brain is concerned, the pain experienced by a breakup, or social rejection, is not far from that of breaking an arm, a leg or some other type of injury.

On the other hand, a scientific article from the Association For Psychological Science indicates that "these two types of pain, physical and social, may depend on some of the same neural and behavioral mechanisms that register pain-related affect." He then goes on to state that “to the extent that these pain processes overlap, acetaminophen, a physical pain suppressant that acts through central (rather than peripheral) neural mechanisms, may also reduce neural and behavioral responses to pain of social rejection". This means that a painkillers has the potential to help mitigate the ailments caused by a love "injury", which ultimately speaks to the way in which the physical and the emotional are interconnected.

Tips for getting over a breakup

Overcoming a love injury may take months or years, experts provide basic advice to help cope with this process. Some of them are: establishing routines that are different from those carried out with your ex-partner, reconnecting with people who appreciate you as friends and family, exercising to promote the release of endorphins, focusing on new projects and personal development. Finally, they recommend not forgetting that, although intense, this is a pain that heals over time.