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

Updated 02/21/17

If you've recently gone through a breakup, it may not be any stretch of the imagination to accept that the emotional suffering you've undergone can be compared to drug addiction. A recent study found exactly that: Just like drug abuse, romantic love begins with euphoria and ends with craving. Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Yeshiva University, investigated this phenomenon by scanning brains of college students around New York who responded to a flyer reading, "Have you just been rejected in love but can't let go?"

"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 Science of Us. "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."

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." Emotional injuries caused by heartbreak are actually physical, with neurons forced to grow and change their physiology to adapt to the individual's newfound single state.

The suggested strategy for beating the addiction takes a cue from how American GIs beat heroin addiction after serving in the Vietnam War—an estimated 95% did not become re-addicted once they returned home to the States. So if you're in the midst of heartbreak recovery, take the time to get away for a while and help your mind and body heal with a new environment to build a new you.

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