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The Neuroscience Behind Breakups

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The end of a relationship is one of the toughest, most difficult emotional experiences most people will face in life. Breakups can be just as devastating as the formation of a new relationship is euphoric. The roller coaster of emotion and uncharacteristic irrational behavior that often follows a breakup has been an object of study for neuroscientists.

What is going on with our brains? Why is it so hard to let go and pull it together without making fools of ourselves with pathetic, manic depression-fueled attampts to salvage the relationship? Of course, not everyone shares the same difficulty when parting ways with a former lover. A lot of it depends on the quality of the relationship and the psychology of the person.

However, the process of attaching and detaching from a person has been shown to activate a number of different “brain systems’ and many of them are the same ones associated with drug addiction. The brain systems are circuits of neurological activity that neuroscientists believe are responsible for the cognitive motivators for various biological imperatives such as mating and emotional bonding.

In an article posted on Psychology Today, Dr. Rhonda Freeman, a clinical neuropsychologist in Florida, proposes that there are six brain systems at play following a traumatic breakup:

  • The Bonding System
  • Reward System
  • Pain Systems
  • Stress Systems,
  • Emotion-Regulation System
  • Cognitive Networks

The Bonding System

The bonding system is activated when establishing an emotional connection with another. The neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin are responsible for the formation of bonds with not just lovers, but also our children and friends. When this connection is severed, the brain will feel destabilized by the recognition of loss and go into panic mode. It will compel us to try and restore the relationship and recoup our loss even if the relationship wasn’t that great.

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Dr. Freeman suggests surrounding ourselves with supportive people who love us to expedite the psychological healing and adjustment process.

The Reward System

Is primarily driven by dopamine and other endogenous opioids. These neurochemicals are involved in the sensations of both pleasure and pain and creates the motivation to pursue an object of desire and the sense of gratification from attaining it. Dr. Freeman states that the reward system is involved with addiction and “is part of the bonding system circuitry leading a person to crave their ex-partner”. Seratonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for obsession, and impulsive behavior, is also released in the brain following a heart-break leading to psycho behavior such as repeated calls and texts, spying on and stalking of the ex-partner.

The Pain System

The drop in endogenous opioid levels following a painful break up is associated with the sensation of a ‘broken heart’ and feelings of despair and lachrymosity. This further motivates the desire to reconcile and seek consolation and comfort from the estranged partner. Dr. Freeman suggests listening to uplifting music as an effective therapeutic solution to sooth emotional pain.

The Stress System

Corticotropin and norepinephrine are hormones released when experiencing stress. They induce an over stimulated state of hyper-awareness and arousal. This can cause heart palpitations and affect changes in sleep patterns and appetite. These stress symptoms have been observed in people following heart break. Exercise and seratonin are helpful treatments for stress reduction.

The Emotion-Regulation System

During periods of stress such as that caused by a breakup, the concomitant reduction of activity in the prefrontal cortex results in a temporary lowering of emotional inhibition and self control. This leads to impulsive and irratic behavior that an individual is bound to regret later.

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Cognitive Networks

The cognitive processes become compromised amidst the storm of over-active emotional systems. As a result, concentration, memory and organization will be hindered severely.


Source: The Neurobiology Behind Breakups | Psychology Today

Jetta Moon

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