Something awful happens to your brain when you have your heart broken
Oscar Wilde once wrote that the heart was made to be broken, and as much as we wish it wasn't true, it sometimes seems like the Irish poet hit the nail firmly on the head. The thing is, people across the world can be young, old, rich, poor, friends, enemies... They can come from the most dissimilar backgrounds possible, but chances are they'll always have one thing in common: they've all felt the horrendous pain of a once deep love that's gone horrifically wrong and left them feeling like half a person.
However, going through a distressing breakup doesn't just mean investing in a new block fringe that you'll regret for the next year and a half or upping your body's tolerance to liquor until your composition boasts more gin than oxygen or carbon. In fact, the self-destruct button is also being detonated in your brain as well. So buckle up, heartbroken kids of the world, and get ready to hear exactly what is going on inside that head of yours when you're busy focusing on belting out Taylor Swift breakup tunes at the top of your lungs.
Your brain goes into withdrawal from your ex
The person who made up the phrase "love is like a drug" certainly wasn't kidding. Unfortunately for the serial daters out there, being in love is much like being addicted to crack cocaine, so when you get dumped or have a painful separation from the person you love, there's a reason why you can't stop thinking about them, and why you feel your heartbeat rises whenever their name is mentioned: You are essentially in withdrawal.
Neuroscientist and professor Dr. Lucy Brown and anthropologist Helen Fisher tested this theory when they put people who had recently been romantically rebuffed into an MRI machine and asked them to look at images of the people who had just rejected them, as well as other pictures of platonic friends. The results were incredibly telling; when the dumpee saw the person who had rejected them, it triggered activity in their reward neurons inside the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area of the brain. To put it in non-scientific terms, seeing the person they loved lit up the brain areas that are active when people are withdrawing from cocaine and nicotine.
This is also the part of the brain that is stimulated when you're in the early can't-get-enough-of-each-other phase that often seems like a lifetime ago when he leaves his dirty socks on the floor for the eighth time that week. Essentially, a breakup throws you back into the obsession of early love where everything reminds you of that person, no matter how little or long you were together.
There's a chance that the same neurons that made you an excellent partner may make you obsessed
Have you ever sent a drunken late-night text to your old lover? Or got a little crazy when you saw her or him with a new bae? Or stalked his or her social media pages every hour for the latest share or like? Everyone with half a brain in their head knows that this heartbroken behaviour is self-destructive and certainly not going to help you get over your lost love. But the scientific evidence suggests that becoming a little psychotic after a breakup isn't actually all your fault - it's the way your brain is programmed.
Your brain has become a little spoilt and is basically used to being reward whenever it has a craving for your beloved; dopamine activates circuits inside the brain that create an innate need for more. But unfortunately, you ain't getting any more lovin' this time! So you begin to act crazy.
Reportedly, the ventral tegmental area in the stem of the brain — the part of your brain that controls both unconscious acts like breathing, but also processes pleasure, reward, and falling in love — remains unwittingly infatuated with your ex after you've been dumped and could be responsible for making you indulge in some reckless behaviour.
Studies show that, as you and your partner both gradually settled into your relationship, the obsession you felt with one another faded away. That's not to say that you weren't in love with them, it just means that the lovey-dovey phrase is over. While you were together thoughts of your boyfriend or girlfriend still tickled the brain's reward system, just in a less extreme way. However, after a breakup, you're in big trouble as those can't-get-enough feelings are back in full swing.
The worst thing about the whole situation? Studies have shown that the chemicals that made you say "I love you" and drive your friends crazy with talk about your bae way back in the honeymoon phase are the same chemicals that cause you to be labelled as a psycho ex.
Your brain goes through the same process as actual physical pain
Ever notice that a painful breakup can actually cause you physical pain or discomfort? Maybe you've walked around feeling sick to your stomach, perhaps your chest has gotten a bit tight, or it could be that you get a little panicky. This is no coincidence. When you go through a painful heartbreak, the trauma of it affects your body as much as it does your brain, but the two are linked.
Two studies in the past have shown that the part of the brain that responds to physical pain lights up, however, the parts of the brain that collect pain sensations from the outside were completely non-responsive. Ultimately, the body is telling you that something terrible has happened, despite you not being actually physically injured.
Heartbreak has been shown to have an awful effect on things like the digestive system, the immune system and sometimes even the heart itself. In extreme cases, the stress of going through a breakup can cause the heart to weaken and bulge, creating a condition takotsubo cardiomyopathy, otherwise known as "broken heart syndrome". Although incredibly rare, in dramatic circumstances, it can sometimes lead to sudden heart failure resulting in death. Yes, that's right. Love can honestly kill you.
Time heals all... eventually
Chances are, you're not going to feel okay for a while after heartbreak hits you hard - and it can be easy to feel like you'll never feel like yourself again. Researchers claim there's no reliable way to speed up the process. But the good news is that your brain is on it!
In fact, your brain is actually working overtime to get you back to back to your very best. Scientists tell us that our ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — the part of our brains that processes emotional reassessment — is already imagining a better future without that good-for-nothing ex. Apparently, it all works by your ventrolateral prefrontal cortex coming up with a new ending to the story of your relationship, one where your relationship ending does not mean the end of your happiness. The rom-com finish where you run after the new objection of your affection in the snow to find him buying you a brand new diary is nigh.
So, we already knew that breakups weren't a barrel of laughs for anyone, but now you know exactly what your poor brain goes through in the process. Nonetheless, you know the saying, when one door closes, another one opens! Your breakup - no matter how disastrous it was - means a fresh beginning, so enjoy it. After all of the blubbering, incessant over-eating and feeling sorry for yourself, that is.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu