Going Through a Breakup? Get to Know the Neuroscience Behind It

Breakups are painful life experiences. I’ve been there too, and they hurt! We are not all the same in how quickly we bounce back after lost love. But as human beings, we share similar neurological responses when it comes to rejection, loss, and heartbreak.

The brain is a fascinating organ that is responsible for who we are (personality), what we think, and how we feel. And even more than that we have the ability to change it, enhance it and at times ignore some of its reactions!

Why does learning brain responses to a breakup matter?

It leads to clarity and self-understanding, which can lessen the emotional burden during a tough time. Questions such as those below will make more sense when we know a little neuroscience.

  • Why do I have strange thoughts like wanting to spy on her (him)?
  • Why does it feel like my heart is breaking?
  • Why can’t I sleep or eat?
  • Why can’t I concentrate on anything other than him (her)

A Brain Theory for Breakups

In 2011, I composed a neurobiological model to describe the emotional and thinking challenges that many people go through after a breakup (in preparation for a talk I was giving).

This theory came about after years of evaluating patients, who were struggling with the ending of their relationships. It was evident that certain brain systems were involved with their distress.

Six Brain Systems

Based on their shared symptoms there seemed to be six systems within the brain that were in a dysregulated state after their breakup.

They are:

  1. The Reward System
  2. Bonding System
  3. Stress Systems
  4. Pain System
  5. Emotion-Regulation System
  6. Cognitive Networks
  • (Systems refer to areas, pathways and neurochemistry that respond as a group under certain conditions.)

In science, research support is everything! Therefore, I vigorously combed through journal articles (in 2011) in hopes of finding studies that lent some validity to this neurobiological model of breakups. I came across the work of Drs. Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong and Mashek.

In 2010 they researched romantic love rejection and found that the brains of their participants demonstrated significant responses within the reward, attachment and pain systems. These results were consistent with the symptoms I observed with my patients.

Let’s dive into the six brain systems associated with breakups!

1) The Reward System

When it comes to intimate relationships, the reward system is related to a person wanting, craving and desiring their ex, even if they were not a good partner. This system is associated with an addictive response to the relationship. Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter here.

Serotonin has an impact on many areas of the brain, including the reward system. When this neurotransmitter is low, it has been correlated with compulsivity, certain forms of impulsivity, retaliation to unfairness, and feelings of aggression.

2) The Bonding System

After a breakup, the bonding system is associated with the need to re-establish the romantic connection. Drs. Burkett and Young described the interplay between this system and the reward system in our close relationships. Our former love becomes incorporated within us (neurobiologically) and it can feel like a part of us is missing when they are gone. The primary neurochemical drivers of this system are oxytocin and vasopressin.

3) The Stress Systems

We have more than one stress system. Two of the stress systems tend to become active after a breakup. When this happens, a person may experience difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, hyperarousal, anxiety, and physical reactions to stress.

It is through these systems that our brain and body are simultaneously shifted into a heightened gear of alertness and arousal. The main neurochemistry of these two stress systems are norepinephrine and corticotropin releasing factor.

4) The Pain System

When an intimate relationship ends, this system contributes to the sensation of grief and feeling heartbroken. Many studies suggest that there is some overlap between psychological pain and a few of the brain regions associated with physical pain. The neurochemistry that stands out most with this system is endogenous opioids.

5) The Emotion-Regulation System

There are times when stressors can be so overwhelming, negative or repetitive that they disrupt the functioning of the brain. When that happens, regions such as the prefrontal cortex that would normally perform a regulating (helpful/ calming) role, are rendered less effective. Stress hormones impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. A person will feel more distressed during this time.

6) Cognitive Networks

Some individuals find it more difficult to think clearly after a breakup. Given that the brain gives priority to the emotional systems (e.g., stress, reward), it allocates limited resources to cognition.

Thinking changes are often related to the reduced performance of certain areas of the prefrontal cortex - this is common when stress is high. The areas of thinking that are most vulnerable are, attention and concentration, executive functions, and memory.

What can a person do when these systems become dysregulated?

You can give the brain a little help. Be aware that it takes time for it to settle down when a deep bond is broken (assuming there was not abuse or trauma). It can do most of the balancing work on its own, so long as a person does not pursue the old relationship.

It can be helpful to avoid appeasing the reward system, as it is a system associated with action and wanting. It could potentially generate the desire to behave in ways that could create problems.

Engage in patience, self-compassion, and consider four of its (many) favorite things –

1) Connection

Spend time with warm, supportive people (often generates the calming neuropeptide oxytocin)

2) Exercise (might boost serotonin)

4) A walk or time in nature (could reduce ruminations)

If needed, get professional help

For some, the psychological changes may be significantly disruptive (to self or others). Conditions such as depression and anxiety may develop. In such instances, a consultation with a mental health professional may be warranted.

Rhonda Freeman, PhD - Neuropsychologist. Exploring the neuroscience of healthy and abusive love relationships. (Visit Neuroinstincts!)

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  • [This content is informational. It is not intended to serve as any psychological service/advice and is not a substitute for consultation with your healthcare provider.]
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