Brain and Body

6 Things That Happen in the Brain and Body When Someone Breaks Your Heart

March 23, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Broken Heart
Photo credit: Alex Bellink/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Brain activity of a heartbroken person is similar to that of a cocaine addict going through withdrawal.

Anyone who’s gone through a rough breakup knows just how painful the whole process can be. There’s a scientific reason why it hurts so much when someone dumps you — heartbreak has physiological effects on our bodies and minds.

Based on various studies, here are 6 things that occur in the brain and body post-break up that explain the painful science behind heartbreak.

1. Activity in the brain region that registers physical pain increases

Scientists have used functional MRI scanning on people who were recently dumped in order to see what goes on in the brain. One study showed that heartbroken study volunteers had higher than normal activity in the region of the brain that registers physical pain, called the anterior cingulate cortex.

SEE ALSO: 9 Things That Happen in the Brain and Body During an LSD Trip

2. Stress hormones lead to physical problems

Once the brain experiences the increase in anterior cingulate cortex activity mentioned above, this triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. Not only does the release of these hormones contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression, but physical symptoms like nausea and difficulty breathing can occur.

3. You experience separation anxiety

When you fall in love with someone, you obviously form a strong emotional bond. Once you lose that person, the warm feelings of love and comfort are replaced with feelings of anxiety, fear, and distress. In extreme cases, separation anxiety can lead to headaches, nausea, or vomiting.

4. You can experience withdrawals similar to a cocaine addict

It sounds extreme, but studies have shown that people going through a breakup show similar brain activity to addicts going through cocaine withdrawal.

Researchers from Rutgers University had 15 people, who had recently been dumped and still described themselves as “intensely in love,” get inside of an MRI machine and look at photos of their ex — sounds extremely torturous, so kudos to the heartbroken champions who took one for the team in the name of neuroscience.

The brain scans showed that their brain activity was similar to the brain of a cocaine addict going through withdrawal, which makes sense considering the act of falling in love triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine in the brain.

SEE ALSO: Stanford Psychologists Reveal the Worst Thing You Can Do After a Breakup

After someone breaks your heart, your brain craves those dopamine rushes that you’re no longer experiencing, so it’s kind of like going through love withdrawal.

5. It can spiral into a more serious, life-threatening medical condition

We see and hear about heartbreak in movies and music all the time, but takotsubo cardiomyopathy (TTC), or broken heart syndrome, is an actual medical condition that can be extremely serious.

TTC temporarily affects the heart’s ability to pump efficiently, and it can cause symptoms similar to those of a heart attack, including chest pain and shortness of breath. In extreme cases, broken heart syndrome can cause death.

6. Your brain is hard-wired to move on

To end on a positive note, your brain is hard-wired to move on after a breakup or hard times in life,  according to research at Saint Louis University.

"Our review of the literature suggests we have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives," Brian Boutwell, a doctorate professor of epidemiology, said in a press release. "It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel."

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