Why do breakups hurt, literally?

The neuropsychology of breakups and how to heal.

Breakups are real.

And they suck.

So I might as well end this letter right here because thank you, Captain Obvious.

But what is less commonly known is the practical neuroscience behind it.

Over the past week, I came across a video where a certain lady had a functional brain scan done to find out if heartbreaks are “physical”.

She then tried to manipulate those brain areas upon finding them.

Could they…simply be wiped? Can we use actual science to recover?

Let’s talk about the conflict in the plot of literally every teenage movie ever — heartbreaks.

What happens in the brain during a breakup?

It turns out there are very physical changes that happen in the brain during the separation of a relationship. The ache in the chest, generalised fatigue, stomach cramps. And thanks to functional brain scans, we now have knowledge on what parts on the brain light up during a breakup.

One is the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which is a core component of the pain network when we receive pain or watch others in the same situation. This explains why the emotional pain that ensues can feel a lot like physical pain. That’s how the body perceives it via the brain!


But perhaps more interesting is the concept of a breakup being similar to a withdrawal state. The intense cravings, obsessive thoughts and even physical dependence can be likened to withdrawal symptoms like when detoxing from alcohol or recreational drugs like heroin. 

❤️ Catch up on the last time we spoke about the brain and falling in love here.

Because being in love releases all sorts of feel-good hormones, the sudden withdrawal can be quite dramatic. 

“All the emotions that you end up feeling, they're just more of the physiological features of your brain.” — Dr. Nicole Vincent

Another area of the brain implicated in love is the Ventral Tegmental Area, which is rich in dopamine and involved in the reward-addiction pathway. So imagine when “love” is (often suddenly) removed. Yikes. Wahala.

Side note: I wonder if this also lights up with our social media usage these days.

This also explains the tendency to romanticise the past. Nostalgia can be a powerful (and misleading) drug. Anything to get back to that feeling even if it mean rewriting a memory right before our very eyes. Remember how we said the amygdala is involved in memories but also emotions?

But here’s also the thing:

Based on evolutionary instincts, the loss of a relationship can hit different. As social creatures, we’re wired to want to preserve social bonds, especially the deeply-rooted ones, so as to continue to remain part of the tribe. Yet even though uncoupling doesn’t necessarily mean losing shelter or food in this day and age (except when it does), losing them can evoke very strong negative reactions and emotions.


Can science cure a heartbreak?

So what do we do about it?

The best way to get over someone is to get under someone new.

Okay, that’s not true. But as erroneous as this might sound, there’s a point to be made.

Hear me out:

Short-bursts of dopamine.

To our already deprived and desperate brain, these chemicals are desired. But therein lies the problem — they’re short-lived, and will actually leave the individual feeling worse off. The recovery process is set back. Remember this is an attempt to wean off an addictive substance/someone.

But similar to someone trying to overcome a dangerous addiction, getting off that high for a while is necessary.

“The trickiest of the heartbreak neurotransmitters is oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bonding chemical… and the brain needs time to undo that bond.” — Dr. Mike Dow

So now we’re getting to the good stuff…

“After a breakup, people should expect withdrawal symptoms for roughly six months and increase their self-care and social support during this season." — Dr. Wyatt Fischer

As difficult as it sounds, going cold turkey is one of the most recommended methods. And this is perhaps most key in the first step. What this looks like is getting rid of memorabilia, visual cues and contact (phone, text, social media). This is because reminders are craving cue signals to the brain.

Afterward, slowly being exposed to dopamine with alternatives such as a ton of social support, healthy distractions in form of a new project/hobby etc. These are collectively referred to as Self-Expanding Activities.

At the end of the day, we all deal with issues differently and in our own time. I didn’t really find this tip in the literature but I personally think it’s healthy to let the emotions out. To laugh and cry, when necessary.

Love hurts but the good part is, it doesn’t hurt forever.

Like someone rightly said, time (and neuroplasticity) heals all wounds.