Breaking up with someone can feel like physical pain - here's how the end of a relationship affects us psychologically
- Breaking up with someone is painful.
- According to scientific research, this is because the same areas in the brain are activated when we feel heartbreak and when we feel physical pain.
- Other studies have also shown that love is like an addiction, and losing it can be like going through withdrawal.
- Psychologist Guy Winch believes understanding why we feel, think, and behave as we do after a break-up is important for recovery.
Anyone who has been through a break-up will tell you how much it hurts. When the person you care about the most tells you they don't want to be with you anymore, it can feel like your whole world is falling apart.
The pain can also be excruciating.
Break-ups can have a dramatic impact on our bodies. For example, broken heart syndrome is a real condition, with serious and painful symptoms. Other studies have also shown how break-up stress can cause acne, loss of appetite, and sore muscles.
But as well as the body, our brains also go through a lot after a break up. In a post on Psychology Today, psychologist Guy Winch wrote about the effects that splitting up with our partner can have on our brains.
When someone tells you they are in pain after a break up, they are probably telling the truth.
A study from 2011, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), found that romantic rejection meant areas of the brain associated with feelings of pain are activated.
Psychologist Edward Smith from Columbia University in New York City recruited 40 volunteers who had gone through an unwanted break-up in the past six months. Then, while in an MRI machine, they were asked to look at photo of their ex-partners and think about how they were rejected.
The MRI scans showed that while participants were thinking about their romantic turmoil, areas in the brain associated with physical pain lit up.
Another study from 2010, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, looked into why romantic rejection causes a profound sense of loss.
Anthropologist Helen E. Fisher from Rutgers University and her team looked at areas in the brain associated with cocaine addiction, to see if they could help explain the obsessive behaviors associated with love.
They found that missing your significant other lights up the same parts of your brain as cocaine users who are waiting for their next line. In other words, love is addictive, and breaking up with someone is like going through withdrawal.
"These powerful withdrawal symptoms (from the loss of love) impact our ability to think, focus, and function in the broadest terms," Winch, the psychologist, wrote in his blog post.
"We would never expect an addict in the midst of withdrawal to be able to function in their job or personal life because we understand they are in a temporarily abnormal mental state. We need to think of heartbreak in the same terms and modify our expectations of ourselves and others accordingly."
Winch adds that intrusive thoughts about our exes can keep us stuck in the past. We are always told that time is a great healer, but sometimes it might feel like no length of time will be long enough to get over the heartache.
The problem is our brains keep conjuring up memories of our ex that can come out of nowhere. It might be a happy memory, a conversation, or thoughts of "what if?"
"Each time an intrusive thought appears it interrupts us, reopens our wound, reactivates our emotional pain and triggers our withdrawal symptoms," Winch said.
"Given that intrusive thoughts can occur dozens of times in a given hour, and given how significantly they can set us back, it is clear why so many of us struggle to get over heartbreak and recover in a timely manner."