Have you recently gone through a breakup? Do you find yourself obsessively thinking about your ex-lover? Are your friends telling you too just move on and get over him or her?
Everyone knows that relationship breakups are emotionally painful. The advice people give one another is to “just move on.” While this may be good advice, the brain may not be ready to move on just yet. Research studies show that the brains of people who recently went through a breakup have higher levels of dopamine, serotonin, and the insula and anterior cingulate cortex are active. These three changes are related to addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, and physical pain.
Dopamine is a chemical secreted by the reward system of the brain and this is what gives us that “feeling good” moment. There are many different times that dopamine is produced, one of them being when using drugs. The feelings of withdrawal from drugs are related to the reduced production of dopamine. Hence, cravings develop. The brain is yearning for more of the “feeling good” drug. When we fall in love, our brain produces high levels of dopamine which contributes to the great feeling of being in love. The downside to this is that when we break up, the brain stops producing the dopamine. Hence, the craving for our ex-lover develops! The brain of someone in the midst of a breakup looks very similar to someone who is going through a substance withdrawal.
The production of serotonin is also involved in the love and relationship breakup process. Low-levels of serotonin in the brain is related to obsessive compulsive disorder. The brain of someone diagnosed with OCD indicates low-levels of serotonin just as the brain of someone who recently broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend. The change of production of serotonin is what leads to obsessive thinking while someone is in love and continues during the relationship breakup phase.
The insula and anterior cingulate cortex are the areas of the brain that register pain. Researchers asked people who have recently broken up with their partner to look at a picture of their ex. The fMri brain scans of the participants showed that the areas of the brain that register pain were active. This indicates that the brain processes a relationship breakup as physical pain. When we say a breakup hurts, it physically hurts!
The next time your friends tell you to “just move on” you can tell them that it is scientifically not possible for you to do so. The brain needs time to adjust to this change before it goes back to regular productions of dopamine and serotonin. But, the suggestion of distracting yourself is a good idea. Keeping your brain busy with other activities will give it the boost needed to regulate itself again. If you still find yourself in pain a while after your relationship breakup, it is time to seek out a therapist who can help you find ways to get yourself (and your brain) back on track.
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC