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

Updated 05/30/19
@carmengracehamilton

If you've recently gone through a breakup, it may not stretch the imagination to accept that the emotional suffering you've experienced can be compared to they symptoms of drug addiction. A small study conducted in 2010 suggest exactly that: Similar to the symptoms of drug addiction, romantic love begins with euphoria and ends with craving. As part of the study, Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Yeshiva University, investigated this phenomenon by scanning brains of college students around New York who responded to a flyer that asked, "Have you just been rejected in love but can't let go?" Maybe we've all been there; lost in the feeling that you just can't get your Ex out of your head, even though you know it's the best thing to do now that things are officially over?

Per Brown, brain scans revealed heartbroken brains look awfully like brain scans of cocaine addicts craving their next fix. "In retrospect, it's not surprising that the same areas of the brain that were active in the brains of cocaine addicts were active in these people who were heartbroken looking at a picture of their former romantic partner," Brown told New York Magazine's The Cut. "We crave the other person just as we crave nicotine or pain pills; you want to be near the other person, you're constantly thinking about them, we even do dangerous things sometimes to win them back—we don't eat or sleep."

And the reason for this has biological roots. Brown's collaborator, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, has asserted that "romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by four million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction." Meaning, we've “evolved millions of years ago to drive us to form a pair bond and send our DNA into tomorrow,” Fisher tells Medium in 2019. And when the brain gets used to this, experts say, it constantly seeks out more of the same.

Unfortunately, says Brown, this may be why it can take a long time to heal from heartbreak.

Similarly, emotional injuries caused by heartbreak can actually reshape our brain. Post-breakup, neurons are forced to grow and change their physiology to adapt to the individual's newfound single state. In other words, your brain literally has to rewire itself to adjust to singledom, or all of those instances when your brain was continuously rewarded (with love, happiness) during your relationship.

So, how to break the habit? The suggested strategy for healing your heart and brain might lie in that ubiquitous Eat Pray Love-esque notion of finding oneself—or getting lost. “Go really far away, to where all the things are different, for a month if you can,” Brown tells The Cut. Doing so can help mix up your feelings (in a good way), and change your sense of self to create a path for a new self, explains Brown. For example, NPR reported in 2015 that research conducted by a psychiatric researcher named Lee Robins found 95 percent of American GIs did not become re-addicted to heroin (once believed to be an unbeatable addiction) when they returned home after serving in the Vietnam War.

"People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment," David Neal, a psychologist who specializes in behavior change, told NPR. Neal goes on to say that approximately 45 percent of what we do every day "is in the same environment and is repeated." In the case of Vietnam Veterans studied, research suggests the environment was largely responsible for their ability to avoid re-lapse.

That said, if you're in the midst of heartbreak recovery, it might be wise to take the time to get away for a while and help your mind and body heal. Or at the very least, seek a totally new or different environment to build a new you.

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