Why Heartbreak Hurts So Damn Much
Love is an addiction, as far as your brain is concerned. Here are ways to make the withdrawal less painful.
In the throes of heartache, finding your way back to joy can seem impossible. However, the secret to getting there faster may be in taking control of your neurotransmitters — the brain chemicals that allow your brain cells to send signals and communicate with one another.
The levels and activity of a few key neurotransmitters—namely dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin—play a huge role in how you feel after a breakup. According to renowned anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love, feelings of love and heartbreak are explained by disruptions in these brain chemicals. The answer to bringing them back into balance could be as basic as adding a few new habits into your routine.
The Chemicals of Love
According to Fisher, dopamine and norepinephrine are the first two brain chemicals that kick in when you fall in love — they are the neurotransmitters that create attraction.
Dopamine controls feelings of pleasure and reward in the brain. When dopamine levels are right, we feel good. Levels that are too low lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, low motivation, and poor concentration. Increased dopamine activity makes us feel euphoric and elated; in extreme cases, it contributes to mania and psychosis.
Dopamine is also the primary neurotransmitter associated with addiction. Addictive substances (like cocaine, methamphetamines, and nicotine) cause an intense surge of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers. But as the effects wear off, so does the good feeling.
To replicate the same high, people dealing with addiction must keep taking their chosen drug to keep dopamine levels up and avoid the unpleasant crash. Eventually, the brain becomes accustomed to the boosted levels of dopamine and needs more and more just to feel normal. In the simplest terms, this is what creates addiction.
Every date, every phone call, every text offers another hit of your drug of choice. Eventually, your brain becomes neurochemically addicted.
As it turns out, as far as your brain is concerned, love is also an addiction. According to Fisher, people who are newly in love experience spikes of dopamine in the same reward centers as people using cocaine. Each encounter with their sweetheart gives them another boost. Couples who claim that, after 10 to 30 years of marriage, they are still passionately in love are not lying. They feel this way because each partner still ignites intense dopamine activity in the reward centers of the other’s brains.
When you first fall in love, you may feel you can’t get enough of your new love interest. As time passes, you crave this person more and more. Every date, every phone call, every text, offers another hit of your drug of choice. Eventually, your brain becomes neurochemically addicted. In the immortal words of Robert Palmer, “Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.”
When you first fall in love, your heart may also be pounding. You might have sweaty palms and nervous butterflies. You might feel exhilarated, elated, and full of energy. This is the effect of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter closely related to increased levels of dopamine. Norepinephrine controls the fight-or-flight response. It makes us hyperalert during times of stress — so you may notice you feel unable to eat or sleep. Love is a stress we actually crave and search for the world over.
Norepinephrine is also the neurotransmitter of memory and imprinting. As you fall in love, you are able to remember everything your lover says. You begin to feel like there is nobody else in the world quite like them. Fisher’s brain scan research shows that centers of the brain that respond to norepinephrine kick into high gear when people are shown a picture of someone they are attracted to (versus a picture of a casual acquaintance). It is norepinephrine that causes us to feel that certain excited quality about a beloved that we can’t quite put into words.
When you first fall in love, you have tunnel vision. That is because falling in love drops levels of another neurotransmitter: serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are believed to be the brain mechanism behind obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). When you fall in love, much like the experience of OCD, you cannot stop thinking about the object of your obsession.
The Chemicals of Lasting Love
While dopamine produces that initial high of falling in love, other neurotransmitters eventually replace it and are associated with the sensation of lasting love. You may notice a shift in the way you feel as love becomes more settled. A best-friend feeling sets in, and the butterflies get less intense. Oxytocin and vasopressin are the neurochemicals behind this feeling of lasting love. They are the reason we want to spend a lifetime with a person.
Oxytocin is known as the pair-bonding hormone. It is what allows us to feel trust, contentment, security, and stability. Research indicates that women experience a flood of oxytocin during childbirth and breastfeeding. Oxytocin causes the strong contractions during labor. Then, when infants are placed skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest, the baby’s suckling and movements cause a continued supply of maternal oxytocin. The oxytocin gives the mother a relaxed, calm, and nurturing feeling.
People also experience elevated levels of oxytocin during the skin-to-skin contact of sex and during orgasm. While both men and women respond to oxytocin, it particularly affects women, since estrogen enhances its activity. Oxytocin is what makes people feel close to one another after having sex.
Vasopressin is the monogamy hormone. It is linked to forming long-term bonds, particularly in men. Animal studies in monogamous prairie voles show that blocking vasopressin in the males made them behave in less monogamous ways. A study examining the gene affecting vasopressin in human males has shown a similar finding. While both sexes respond to vasopressin, the male hormone testosterone has an enhancing quality on its effect. It functions in men much like oxytocin does in women.
The Chemicals of Heartbreak
Losing that special someone is, therefore, equivalent to going through chemical withdrawal. When you break up with someone, you no longer have a constant supply of neurochemicals. A person who quits smoking craves cigarettes, misses the activity of smoking, likes the taste of cigarettes, and is triggered by the places and situations in which they once smoked. When you are heartbroken, you crave your love interest, want to call them one more time, miss your lover’s smell, and are triggered by the places and things that remind you of them. You can, consequently, experience depression, anxiety, low motivation, and low concentration — otherwise known as full-scale love withdrawal in the brain.
At the same time, low serotonin levels again make it hard to concentrate; you can’t think of anything else. Serotonin is also responsible for appetite and mood. This is why you don’t want to eat when you lose love. People who suffer from depression find improvement in mood, appetite, and energy when they are treated with medications that increase serotonin activity in the brain. But medication is not the only way to raise serotonin levels.
So, how do you harness the interplay of all these brain chemicals when a broken heart has you down?
Exercise, in moderation, increases activity and production of dopamine in the brain. It also causes increased release of norepinephrine.
Studies have found that long-term high levels of exercise affect the brain in the same ways as addictive drugs. The brain activity of dopamine in people with exercise addiction looks very similar to the brain activity in people addicted to drugs. Some researchers even suggest using exercise as a healthy substitute for addictive substances. Since love is a drug, exercise could be the replacement drug your brain needs when times are tough.
In addition, exercise causes increased release of serotonin in the brain. And it increases the amount of tryptophan (the nutrient essential to the production of serotonin) available to the brain. Plus, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a healthy body and a renewed sense of vitality after a breakup.
Vitamin D3 is essential to regulation of dopamine in the brain. Vitamin D can be found in dairy, but you probably won’t get a lot of it that way. You could take a supplement, but a more natural way to get vitamin D is by exposing your skin to sunlight. Your skin produces vitamin D when it’s exposed to UV rays. You don’t need to overdo it—a little exposure goes a long way.
Sunlight also boosts serotonin. Your skin produces serotonin when exposed to sun, and the rate of serotonin production is related to how long you are exposed. This, in part, explains why some people get the blues in winter months.
Yoga and Meditation
Studies show that people have increased dopamine levels in their system during yoga sessions. In particular, the highly meditative Yoga Nidra style really seems to do the trick.
Also, several studies show that people who meditate regularly have higher levels of serotonin than those who don’t. They have even higher serotonin levels immediately following meditation sessions. Additionally, anxiety-producing norepinephrine levels drop after meditation.
Dopamine and good sleep habits are intimately linked. Several studies have shown that disruptions in a normal sleep/wake cycle can affect how the brain responds to dopamine. In patients with addiction, not getting enough sleep increases how susceptible they are to the effects of their drug. Since love is a drug, not getting enough sleep might affect how prone you are to your own heartbreak/withdrawal symptoms.
The dietary nutrients tyrosine and phenylalanine are essential to producing dopamine and norepinephrine. Foods rich in these nutrients include (in order): cheese, dairy, soy, red meat, pork, fish, poultry, seeds, nuts, eggs, beans, lentils, and whole grains. No wonder sitting on the couch with a tub of ice cream seems like a good idea.
Since the brain needs another nutrient, tryptophan, to make serotonin, foods high in tryptophan are also beneficial. Tryptophan is found in (in order): seeds, soy, cheese, lamb, beef, pork, poultry, tuna, salmon, shellfish, oats, beans, milk, and nuts. Do some of the comfort foods on this list sound familiar?
With so many options, simply committing to eating well and getting over the hump of heartache-induced low appetite can make a difference in boosting your feel-good chemicals.
Try New Experiences
New and exciting experiences also boost dopamine. Researchers tested the theory by showing pictures of familiar things like landscapes, interiors, or faces to subjects in a functional MRI brain scanner. When random, unexpected images were thrown in, the pleasure centers of the brain lit up and resulted in a wave of dopamine throughout the brain.
Pretty much anything new and out of your normal routine will do. As much as you may want to wallow under the covers, the answer really is to get out there and try something. Take a road trip. Take an acting class. Try a new sport. Do something you’ve never done before. Your brain and heart will thank you for it.
Several studies show that interacting socially lights up the reward centers that respond to dopamine and raises levels of oxytocin. This includes positive feedback in any form. Simply posting a funny meme and getting a few likes can help ease that pain. Hanging out with friends in person is even better.
Turns out, the smiles and good feelings you get from listening to music are also controlled by dopamine. While listening to songs that give them goosebumps, research participants laying in a functional MRI scanner showed spikes of dopamine in the brain’s pleasure centers. Just be careful not to pick songs that remind you of your paramour and trigger hard feelings.
Brain-imaging studies using functional MRI and studies examining blood levels show a boost in several feel-good brain chemicals from gentle touch. These include oxytocin, vasopressin, serotonin, and dopamine. Getting sensual caresses from a loved one causes those spikes, but so does massage or hugging a friend.
If you aren’t crazy about bodywork or the idea of hugging all your friends, even a haircut and shampoo could do the trick. Grooming activities have also been shown to boost oxytocin and vasopressin.
Healing the Heart Via the Brain
Love, attraction, and bonding are controlled by a complex interplay of neurochemicals. Their fantastic symphony in the brain makes love feel so good. Heartbreak disrupts and deprives our brains of these chemicals. Scientists have uncovered daily activities and dietary choices that enhance their levels, and affect mood and well-being. All of these healing habits are a part of a healthy lifestyle rich in self-love and self-care — the two keys to overcoming heartbreak.