It was a beautiful relationship, perfect until it wasn't anymore. Things ended and in a matter of moments you’re left aching and yearning for someone whom you shared cherished memories with. As if it wasn’t hard enough, everyone around you suddenly has become a “breakup expert” and is giving you advice on what to do, or not to do, to overcome the void left by your lost love, but the truth is there is no right answer on how to get over a relationship...or is there? According to science, a person experiencing a recent breakup is neurologically experiencing the same effects of someone who is exhibiting withdrawal symptoms. So what can you ‘scientifically’ do to possibly help yourself?
“A person experiencing a breakup is essentially feeling the same things as someone who is going through alcohol withdrawal,” explains Dr Shwetha Raghavan, a Chennai-based psychiatrist, “So the intensity of the relationship certainly plays a huge role on what they are experiencing physiologically.” She goes on to explain that much like an alcoholic who “craves” alcohol and develops a dependency on it, someone who has developed an emotional dependency on their significant other also “craves” the relationship. “So naturally, when they lose that person, they are left in a state of sadness and disbelief. We refer to this as the ‘grief reaction’,” she adds.
So what actually happens in your brain during a breakup?
In 2011, psychologists from the University of Colorado Boulder in the USA conducted an experiment with 40 people who’d experienced a recent breakup (within the past six months). Everyone was given a functional MRI (fMRI) while being shown a photo of their ex and a close friend. In order to stimulate mild to moderate pain, the researchers applied varying levels of heat to each person’s arm and asked them to rate the pain they felt on a scale between 1 and 5.
What they discovered was that similar regions of the brain were activated when the volunteers saw photos of their exes and when they experienced pain in the form of heat. Thus, giving substantial evidence that emotional pain is just as “real” as physical pain, and can actually be measured via the activity of different chemicals in the brain.
A similar study conducted by Dr Lucy Brown, Ph.D., a Professor in the Department of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine revealed that the nucleus accumbens, ventral tegmental area, and orbitofrontal and prefrontal cortexes of the brains of people who were shown photos of their exes were activated. These areas of the brain are known to be involved with reinforcement, reward and motivation. One particularly interesting fact was that there seemed to be a release of dopamine in an individual’s brain on viewing photographs of a former partner, something commonly noted in drug addiction.
“What this suggests is that a person who is combating drug addiction is experiencing the same sudden surge and decrease in levels of dopamine on exposure to the drug, as someone who is going through a breakup and sees something that reminds them of their lost love,” explains Dr Shankar R, a neurologist in Chennai.
Dopamine and its role in withdrawal
“When you cross a familiar place it might cause you to recollect memories that you’ve shared with that person. There might be several such instances where you recollect and revisit older events. Some people may even experience ‘flashbacks’ which can be nightmarish for them,” Dr Shwetha says reiterating Dr Shankar’s statements.
They both also speak about the dopamine surge experienced by those struggling with any form of addiction and the role of the same in a breakup.
“Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical found in the brain which plays a significant role in the reward motivated behavior,” says Dr Shankar, “When you expect a certain reward for an action performed, dopamine levels in the brain are increased and this gives a sense of pleasure for an individual.” Addictive habits result when the dopamine pathways in the brain are activated using an external substance, such as alcohol or drugs, which artificially induce a surge of dopamine.
“When someone gets addicted to a substance, they will slowly build a tolerance or resistance to it and will require more of the substance to get the same ‘kick’ from the dopamine,” explains Dr Shankar. This is the same system which occurs in someone who is experiencing a recent breakup and can even manifest as physical symptoms of withdrawal and anxiety.
“Tremors and palpitations might be some of the physiological symptoms experienced by the individual. They may also exhibit a depressive mood,” says Dr Shwetha.
So what can be done?
Dr Shwetha says that with the right emotional support, most people are able to overcome these ‘acute depressive phases’ which occur as the result of a breakup. However, in some cases there is a chance that a person may experience a major depressive episode and might require additional treatment with a combination of medication and therapy to help them overcome the breakup.
“What they are experiencing is what is known as a ‘grief reaction’. Different people react to it in different ways, but overall there are five stages of grief,” states Dr Shwetha. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the stages of grief as explained by the universally accepted Kubler-Ross model. It is important to note that not all individuals may experience grief in the exact manner as described by the grief cycle, but it is largely applicable to most people.
Not all hope is lost
According to the same study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the best thing to do when experiencing the emotional pain that accompanies a breakup is to just do what feels right for you.
As part of the research, following the stimulation of pain, the volunteers were given a nasal spray. Half of them were told that it was a strong painkiller which would effectively decrease any emotional pain they felt, while the other half were told the truth that it was merely a normal saline spray. The findings of preceding MRI scans showed that the individuals who were given the placebo responded differently when shown the photos of their former partners. While they reported feeling less pain (emotionally and physically), their brain activity too showed that there was an increase in activity in the areas which help control emotions and less activity occurring in the areas which process rejection. This ultimately showed the researchers that the best thing for an individual to do when going through a breakup is to do whatever feels right for them.
Basically, if you believe a tub of ice cream will make you feel better, it actually might.