We might eye-roll at pop culture for always dramatically romanticizing the addictive effects of love through movies, television and music, but what if I told you that while you were belting Ke$ha’s “Your Love Is My Drug,” you were actually speaking some truth?. undefined
It’s not just cute or poetic to parallel the rush we get from love to the highs and lows of a drug addict—it’s actual fact. With Valentine’s Day being around the corner, many of us may be feeling those highs or lows a bit stronger than usual, so we decided to reach out to researchers to get the science behind what a brain in love looks like.
“We see that the symptomology and behavior of someone in love is very similar to an individual addicted to drugs of abuse,” Dr. Don Vaughn, professor of neuroscience at Santa Clara University, tells me.
“Individuals experiencing passionate love show increased activation in dopaminergic reward regions—the same areas of the brain that become active with sex, food, addictive drugs and pleasure in general,” Dr. Vaughn adds, noting that the first stage of love can also be characterized by symptoms of anxiety and stress if there’s uncertainty in the relationship (cue sweaty palms and an increased heart rate).
But what does this all mean exactly? And how are the brain levels of someone in love stimulated in the same respect as a drug addict?
Neuropsychologist Dr. Rhonda Freeman breaks down the neurochemistry that happens when we fall in love.
“The stimulating neurotransmitter dopamine is associated with craving, yearning and wanting someone. We can find this same response in people who are addicted to drugs. They experience cravings that can feel near impossible to resist,” she explains.
“The other stimulant at play is norepinephrine. It gives the sensation of arousal, alertness and attention. When we are in love, norepinephrine can interfere with sleep, appetite and focus. Suddenly, it feels that we only want to give our attention to this new person. We have feelings of excitement when we think of them or are around them.”
Freeman states that these neurochemicals, among others, “work collectively on different brain regions, in varying levels to create the blissful feelings of attraction and new love; the comforting and secure feelings of attachment; as well as the painful longing and withdrawal of separation.”
Ah yes, the separation. Let’s talk about the brain stimulation during a breakup, shall we?
Similar to the beginning of a relationship, the stress and reward systems of the brain are activated simultaneously, but the intensity is heightened. So, while it’s easy to correlate the high of new love to the high a drug addict might feel, the connection in addictive behavior is even more prevalent in the withdrawal behavior that occurs during a breakup.
A previous study showed that when participants looked at photos of their exes, the parts of their brains that lit up in scans were associated with physical pain, distress and attachment, which are the same areas of the brain correlated to drug dependency.
In addition, those who are suffering a breakup are also prone to obsessions and reality distortions, similar to that of a drug addict going through a withdrawal.
“This ramp up in neurochemistry associated with stress, arousal, craving and longing is problematic because now the relationship is over. The individual is left with the intense neurochemistry of love, however without a partner,” Freeman states.
“The brain goes into overdrive trying to retrieve the lost bond. During this time, a person can easily experience grief, as well as symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
Now this is where things get extra tricky. Freeman explains that the reward system may drive you toward your ex (read: stalking their social media, finding reasons to confront them, etc.), and an overactive reward system can even lead a person to doing things that are outside of their character.
“This system is the motivator of reconciliation and can convince you to do things that could deepen pain. Remember this is not the logic area of the brain. It does not ever consider the consequences of your actions. It is impulse and pursuit of pleasure and relief. Therefore, to fight the cravings and cool this system down, it should not get access to what it desires until it is again regulated. This is not the time to ‘just be friends’ as it will make it harder for this system to return to baseline,” Freeman states.
In order to combat these triggers in the brain, she suggests having an “accountability buddy,” who can help you avoid engaging in behaviors that will sustain cravings of the ex-partner. “Detachment is the goal in the early stages of a breakup to reduce the intensity of the reward system. At a later time, once that system is back in balance, one can decide if they want a friendship with their former mate if one was requested.”
Another coping mechanism is moving the body, because it can increase the brain’s availability of serotonin (a neurotransmitter correlated with happiness), as well as spending time in nature. “Sitting in a park, the backyard, a lake, the beach are all very helpful for the brain,” Freeman notes.
So, the next time you feel the urge to check their Instagram story or swear that it’d be totally cool if you guys make the switch from lovers to besties, maybe take a beat to consider the root of where these impulses are coming from and go for a walk instead (but not to their house).