The Neuroscience Behind Emotions of a Broken Heart


06 April 2020

6 Min

The Neuroscience Behind Emotions of a Broken Heart

Table of Contents

Eating ice-cream in bed, watching a sappy rom-com, overthinking, social media stalking, and ultimately just crying it out- we’ve all been there, right? It has become a rite of passage for our generation to be heartbroken. In today’s date, over 50% of young people have dated someone by the age of 15.

With the advent of the “dating-apps era”, more people are making out, hooking up, and casually dating more than ever, but divorce rates are rising rapidly and we are getting married later. Overall, we are a generation of commitment-phobes. In such a setup, when you actually do find yourself in a long-term romantic relationship and then lose that love over the trials and tribulations of our generation- cheating, lying, ‘falling out of love’- it feels like a million stab wounds to the heart.

Scientifically, your brain actually thinks the pain is real and physical, occurring in your heart, and leaving you helpless. As Naomi Eisenbuerger, Ph.D. at the University of California at Los Angeles puts it, the area of your brain that lights up when you're hurt physically is the same area that lights up when you suffer “social rejection”, which sends stress hormones (cortisol and epinephrine) rushing through your system. An overabundance of cortisol tells your brain to send too much blood to your muscles, causing them to contract and be ready for swift action. Since you're not leaping anywhere but instead sitting in bed watching reruns of old Netflix documentaries, you're plagued with swollen muscles causing headaches, a stiff neck and an awful squeezing sensation in your chest.

What happens when our heart, breaks?

Intense heartbreak occurring due to the death of a loved one or similar emotional event is much worse-and can actually cause broken-heart syndrome or Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which can actually kill you. According to the American Heart Association, this syndrome releases stress hormones into your heart muscle- from minutes to hours after the event- that disrupt its regular functioning and can cause shortness of breath, congestive heart failure, low blood pressure, shock, or heart rhythm abnormalities.

From a neuro-chemical perspective, a breakup has the same neurological effects as withdrawal from a very addictive drug. According to The Frisky, the same areas of the brain are activated after viewing an image of the ex as in cocaine addicts who are experiencing physical pain while going through withdrawal from the drug. Romantic love is felt due to an increase in the quantities of a concoction of feel-good brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) that our significant other makes us feel throughout the relationship, and the use of cocaine causes a release of similar ones.

Particularly: a flush of dopamine in the reward system is responsible for happiness, while oxytocin causes trust- which is what helps us form meaningful connections and bonds with the objects of our affection. When these chemicals are released, you feel good and you want more. Over time, your brain gets so used to receiving these heightened level of neurotransmitters from your significant other, that normal pre-relationship levels no longer suffice, and there are now neurons in your brain ‘expecting reward’ as the new normal- and your brain is conditioned- which is why it is such a painful process to even look at old pictures.

Now, despite knowing all this information and doing my research- my breakup from my long-term relationship of four years left me in utter sadness and confusion that lasted no lesser than 8-10 weeks, turned my life in on its head and changed me as a person. It didn’t matter that I knew what was going on in my brain, I still felt what I felt: like I was never going to get over this. That’s when I started looking for solutions backed all the science I’ve mentioned above and here’s how I went about ‘curing’ myself of the breakup, with fool-proof logic and a lot of heart:

Self-care is Health Care

Like with addiction, a sudden loss of the drug causes severe withdrawal and could possibly cause a relapse. I tried to give weaning off of the addition over time a try. I tried to replace the lost feel-good chemicals with new things that made me happy by developing a self-care routine. At first, it was just in theory- because I was just so sad, I was just doing these things because some website or book told me they would help. Ultimately though, my self-care routine made me smarter, more confident of myself, which left me actually loving myself.

How Meditation Rewires your Brain

This is not the most obvious option for many, but meditation practically forced me to focus on me for a few minutes every day, and ultimately helped make me the centre of my universe again. It helped me shift awareness from the external world onto my own body and therefore made me shed emotional baggage.

Working out Makes you Happier

Working out releases endorphins that invite natural feelings of pleasure, happiness, and euphoria. It also helps relieve some of the stress that has been released into the system and helps balance dopamine levels. Increased control over the body and the evident muscle toning/weight loss can help boost self-confidence.

How Gaining Knowledge Helps

For me personally, this part worked wonders. I listened to podcasts, read interesting books of various genres and networked with a lot of seasoned professionals in my field (or not). This gave me a lot of opportunities to explore different possibilities of what my day-to-day could look like and educated me in philosophy, anthropology, astronomy and so on.

Why Making New Friends is Important

Because I was learning fascinating and new information every day, I had a lot of interesting things to talk about on the daily. This helped me with my social skills (that usually suffer after a breakup due to self-esteem issues) by talking to a lot of different kinds of people and internalise their perspective. Sometimes, it may be possible that you don’t want to interact with your friends because they simply might not be able to relate to what you’re going through. In that case, online communities can provide a community of likeminded people for you, where you can find others who went or are currently going through a situation same as yours. In times like these, constant support from a community can be very refreshing and helpful.

Expressing your Emotions

I actually took an hour and a half every day to cry about it and feel bad for myself. While this may sound counterproductive, I think allotting time to do this helped me compartmentalise my brain to show emotion during a specific time every day and keep negative emotions from putting a damper on other activities.

Overall, a positive outlook/perspective, a reminder that you will get through this and a great support system will yield successful results. Another new-age solution I will offer, according to researchers in the journal Psychological Science, is “acetaminophen, an over-the-counter medication commonly used to reduce physical pain, also reduces the pain of social rejection, at both neural and behavioural levels,” since we know they have the same pathway in the brain.

Even though I am not a proponent of popping pills to cure heartbreak, it is intriguing to think that Neuroscience can understand love on a chemical level so much so that maybe in the near future, we will be able to quit love like we quit cigarettes- by wearing a patch or chewing some gum.

You'll be alright

Need a place to vent your thoughts on heartbreaks? Head over to Now&Me's Relationships Community.

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