5 Scientific Reasons Why Breakups Are Devastating

Rejection from a breakup feels heartbreaking and overwhelming because, physiologically, it is.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Raise your hand if you've never heard any of the following lines, in one form or another:

  • Let's be friends.

  • I think we should see other people.
  • It's not you. It's me.
  • I just don't love you anymore.
  • If you've finished reading this list and your hand is raised, please bring it down to face level. Cup your hand to your cheek. Pull it back three to five inches, and, traveling at an increased velocity, slap yourself firmly on the face. Why? If you haven't experienced rejection from a breakup, this exercise serves as a simulation of what rejection feels like. Actually, a slap in the face is much more pleasant than rejection.

    Chances are, though, you didn't raise your hand. I'm willing to bet that if you are reading this article, you are, unfortunately, familiar with the pain of rejection from a breakup.

    Rejection Is Physiologically Heart-Breaking

    "Rejection" comes from Latin, meaning thrown back. When we are rejected, we feel not only halted, but pushed back in the opposite direction of which we were headed. Now consider this: When rejected, how do we describe the event? We tend to say, "I was rejected." Notice what is going on here. We are using passive voice. This indicates how we feel about the part we play in rejection. We view ourselves as passive, as being the victim of an action, as inactive, as non-participative.

    Well, studies have found that after rejection not only do we think passively, but also we act passively. Scientists from the University of Amsterdam found that unexpected social rejection is associated with a significant response of the parasympathetic nervous system. Let's take a quick time-out to discuss just what the heck is the parasympathetic nervous system. When the body is active, generally in fight or flight mode, the sympathetic system engages, heart rate quickens, pupils dilate and energy is directed towards allowing the body to react quickly. However, the parasympathetic system is responsible for when the body is at rest.

    When faced with unexpected rejection, research has found that "feeling that you are not liked" results in our heart rate actually slowing down, an activity of the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, feeling rejected results in you reacting both psychologically and physically. It is interesting to mention that in this study, participants' heart rates fell not only when they heard a person's unfavorable opinion of them, but also in anticipation of hearing a person's opinion. If told that the person's opinion of him or her was unfavorable, the individual's heart rate plummeted even further and took longer to return to baseline. Additionally, heart rates slowed even more when individuals expected a positive opinion, but received a negative one. This explains how rejection, especially the kind that blindsides you, literally feels heartbreaking.

    We Are Hard-Wired to Fear Rejection

    As human beings, we are extremely sensitive to rejection -- especially forms of social rejection. We have a strong motivation to seek approval and acceptance. If we take an anthropological perspective, we can see how back in the day -- I'm talking about back in 10,000 B.C. -- you knew that if you were on your own, your chance of survival was nil. You needed your tribe for food, shelter and protection. Being rejected from others meant imminent death. Evolutionarily speaking, we are hardwired to form relationships and strongly motivated to feel liked and feel like we belong.

    Getting Over a Breakup Is Like Getting Over Cocaine

    Five out of five neurologists agree: Rejection sucks! And arguably, the worst type of rejection is romantic rejection. Getting over a breakup is like getting over an addiction to cocaine. That isn't just my personal viewpoint; it is also the opinion and the scientific finding of researchers at Stony Brook University. The researchers found that the area of the brain that is active during the pain and anguish experienced during a breakup is the same part of the brain associated with motivation, reward and addiction cravings. Brain imaging shows similarities between romantic rejection and cocaine craving. Rejection hurts so acutely because we get addicted to the relationship, only to have it taken away from us. And after, just like a drug addiction, we go through withdrawal.

    We Aren't That Good at Dealing With Loss

    In general, humans aren't good with dealing with loss. The pain of losing something is much stronger than the joy of gaining something. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman received the Nobel Prize for his work in Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory describes how people make choices in situations where they have to decide between alternatives that involve risk. For example, individuals view the pain of losing $50 as much stronger than the joy of receiving $50. What this means as far as rejection is concerned is that ending a relationship can often hurt much more than the joy of starting a new one. This is because of the psychological fact that our brains view loss as more significant than gain.

    Because loss feels stronger than gain, we tend to be loss averse, meaning we will be motivated to avoid risks that involve losing rather than to take risks involved in the potential for gains. Thus, after a breakup, we often say, "That's it for me! No more relationships." We want to avoid the risk of losing, even though there could be a chance for true love.

    The More We Fail, the More the Goal Seems Insurmountable

    Studies have indicated that as the frequency of rejection increases, the more insurmountable our goal appears to be. Psychologist Jessica Witt at Purdue University found that after a series of missed field goal kicks, players perceived the field post to be taller and narrower than before. However, after a series of successful kicks, athletes reported that the post appeared larger than before. It is easy to witness the power of rejection. The more we encounter rejection and the more we view our efforts as pointless, the less we try and the farther away true love seems.

    Breakups and rejections suck! And now science can tell us why. Rejection from a breakup feels heartbreaking and overwhelming because, physiologically, it is.


    Bregtje Gunther Moor, Eveline A. Crone, Maurits W. van der Molen. The Heartbrake of Social Rejection: Heart Rate Deceleration in Response to Unexpected Peer Rejection. Psychological Science, 2010; DOI:10.1177/0956797610379236

    H. E. Fisher, L. L. Brown, A. Aron, G. Strong, D. Mashek. Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 2010; DOI: 10.1152/jn.00784.2009

    Schwartz, Barry (2004). Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
    Witt, J. K, & Dorsch, T. (2009). Kicking to bigger uprights: Field goal kicking performance influences perceived size. Perception 38: 1328-1340 DOI:10.1068/p6325.


    Adoree Durayappah, M.A.P.P., M.B.A., is a writer and psychologist with an addiction to academia. Her passion is helping people understand themselves better by bringing academic research into the public domain in an entertaining and relevant fashion. You can learn more at AdoreeDurayappah.com.

    Go To Homepage

    MORE IN Wellness