To Survive a Breakup, a Neuroscientist Says to Take a Cue From Drug Addiction

woman dressed in black standing on city street
@carmengracehamilton

If you've recently gone through the many emotions of a breakup, it may not stretch the imagination to learn that these feelings are comparable to symptoms of drug addiction. The amount of dopamine that our brains release during these difficult experiences is more similar than you may think—and feelings of rejection and cravings are common to both. So the next time you're wondering why texting your ex feels so impossible to resist, it's okay to give yourself a break. After all, the chemistry that takes place inside our heads is a powerful thing.

When comparing addiction to letting go of partners, it's necessary to understand what happens on the micro-level inside our minds. Experts have studied the human brain in each of these scenarios, and they've discovered similarities that can explain why breakups occupy our thoughts with such entirety. Why can it feel like we're withdrawing from another person? We're glad to learn that it's normal.

Below, read on to find out expert tips and explanations for how breakups compare with addiction.

The Similarities of Love and Addiction

To understand the complex reasons for these feelings, it might first help to look at the big picture: Like the symptoms of drug addiction, romantic love begins with euphoria and ends with cravings. In a study on reward, addiction, and emotional regulation in love, researchers learned that romantic rejection caused clinically-measurable depression in the following eight weeks among 40 percent of participants. Furthermore, they noted that some psychologists even regard romantic love as a type of addiction itself because of its influence on mood swings, obsession, emotional dependence, risk-taking, and even loss of self-control.

Heartbroken Brains vs. Addicted Brains

As part of the study, neuroscientist Lucy L. Brown, Ph.D. and co-researchers investigated this phenomenon by scanning the brains of college students in New York who responded to a flyer that asked, "Have you just been rejected in love, but can't let go?" If you've ever been lost in the feeling of missing your ex, you're not alone. When researchers showed participants photos of their "rejectors," they discovered that several regions of the brain's reward system were activated in places they'd activate for addiction. In other words, the heartbroken brain looks awfully similar to the addicted brain craving a fix. "Those who are rejected in love still 'want' the ex-partner, and experience approach motivation (e.g., desiring to contact the ex-partner) even when contact with the ex may be accompanied by negative outcomes and not pleasurable," Brown noted with co-researchers in a separate study on love and addiction, published in Frontiers in Psychology.

After a breakup, your brain still tries to think about your ex—but by focusing on other things, you can start to break the cycle of attachment.

The way you feel about your ex after a breakup might even be connected to how you felt at your relationship's strongest point. Because we have positive feelings—and produce dopamine—when we're in love, our brains associate that person with each feeling, and produce chemicals accordingly. "Surprisingly, it seems that these reward/motivation systems [use areas of the brain] in similar ways, regardless of whether one is happily in love or obsessing about a lost lover. When these areas light up, we're intensely driven to find the love object—and may spend much of the day thinking about them," says psychologist and author Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D.

Length of Relationship Matters

If your relationship with your ex was long-term and you were deeply connected to each other, it can be even harder to let go. And while you may find yourself wondering why it's so difficult to get over them, there's a reason you could still be holding on: Your brain has formed a legitimate attachment to the other person. "For those who stay in a relationship beyond the early stage, [the] intense romantic phase, an important second constellation of feelings sets in…Those in longer partnerships [beyond eight months] began to show activity in the ventral pallidum, associated with attachment," researches noted in the Frontiers in Psychology study.

Participants even continued to show activity in areas associated with romantic love. So when those tough days come, it's okay to blame your brain: "These two basic neural systems for romantic love and attachment may constitute the biological foundation of human pair-bonding—and provide the context for the evolution of love addictions."

GETTY IMAGES/JGI/JAMIE GRILL
 GETTY IMAGES/JGI/JAMIE GRILL

How to Break the Habit

It's no secret that, for most people, how recently a breakup took place correlates to how strongly they feel. Similar to substituting an addiction (like replacing nicotine with snacks, or trading in alcohol for exercise), it's all about forming habits. When your mind gets used to a routine, it expects the same patterns to continue. It's the same reason why changing your diet can be difficult at first. If you want to stop craving your ex, you'll need to stop the behaviors that reinforce their presence in your brain—like stalking them on social media.

In the early stages of a breakup, you may find yourself obsessing about an ex-partner…But another part of the brain may be able to help you recover.

"In the early stages of a breakup, you may find yourself obsessing about an ex-partner, unable to concentrate on other things, and feeling bad about yourself—and your brain may be the reason why. But don't despair—another part of the brain may be able to help you recover," says Greenburg. Thankfully, when you're craving your last partner like addicted brains crave nicotine, science can help. According to Greenburg, our brains are also wired for recovery and wiser decision-making.

To break the habit, she suggests avoiding things that trigger your memories. Try not to look at photos or the gifts your ex gave you, and avoid places you'd usually spend time together. Thoughts of your ex, even without talking to them, can create dopamine-related cravings and feelings of withdrawal. Once you've got that down, you can build new routines. Exercise, Greenburg says, releases brain chemicals that create feelings of contentment. Exercising also helps to feel better about yourself, gets the dopamine flowing, and can even combat depression.

If you're still wrapped up in the one person you're not supposed to be thinking about, you'll need to change what comes to mind with their name. After all, you broke up for a reason: so use that to your advantage. "Think about all the bad parts of the past relationship. We tend to idealize lost relationships, but you can compensate for this by deliberately thinking about when [they] acted like a jerk, or were oblivious to your needs." Remember when they hurt you? Oh, yeah—that. Instead of looking at your memories with rose-colored glasses, focus on the parts of your relationship you won't miss.

While breakups are never easy, with the help of science, you can rewire your brain to stop thinking about your ex so often. By building new habits and creating routines you love, you'll associate new moments of happiness with positive feelings (even on a chemical level). Plus, there are some amazing parts of single life that you don't have to feel guilty for enjoying now—so don't hold back.

Article Sources
MyDomaine uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Fisher HE, Brown LL, Aron A, Strong G, Mashek D. Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated with Rejection in Love. J Neurophysiol. 2010;104(1):51-60. doi:10.1152/jn.00784.2009

Related Stories