by Keen Huei Liew
art by Ellie Yan
If anyone has ever told you that they’re “in a really good place right now” just three days after being broken up with, they were probably (definitely) lying through their teeth. In all likelihood, they spent 20 minutes staring blankly at their reflection in the mirror this morning, slapping ice-cold water onto their face, and desperately hoping their bloodshot eyes would clear up before they ran into someone they knew. I think many of us have been there: chest so tight that it hurts to breathe, and the only way to ease the pressure is to curl up in a fetal position. Super embarrassing, I know, but that’s how I remained for an entire week the last time I went through a breakup: knees tucked under my chin with my arms tightly wrapped around my shins, headphones blasting Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour album on repeat, and a perpetual damp spot on the pillow under my left cheek. I had even become my worst nightmare: a literal mouth breather, my lips parted like a goldfish as I struggled desperately to inhale through my snot-blocked nostrils, only to fail. It was late June, yet it was somehow still chilly under the covers. All I wanted was to feel the warmth radiating from my ex’s chest again.
What Is Love? — TWICE
Before we jump right into why breakups suck, it is essential to understand its precursor: love. Such an abstract concept can be difficult to define and is subject to a broad range of personal interpretations and definitions. However, from a scientific perspective, love is a “complex mental state involving basic and complex emotions as well as cognitive, rewarding, and goal-directed behavioral components” [1,2]. There are many subtypes of love derived from Greek philosophy, including passionate, platonic, and familial . Perhaps the most complicated kind, or the most discussed, is passionate love, more commonly referred to as romantic love. In the context of romantic relationships, passionate love is defined as “a state of intense longing for union” . This type of love involves a motivated and goal-driven mental state to grow and mature with a significant other .
It is possible that romantic love served an evolutionary purpose: the attachment formed between adults, facilitated by romantic love, is necessary to keep parents together long enough to raise their offspring . A special type of relationship that results from romantic attachment is monogamy, where an organism has only one mate, spouse, or sexual partner at one time . Monogamous and non-monogamous relationships are derived from evolutionary pressures to maximize reproductive success: non-monogamous relationships are more prevalent in environments where one parent (usually female) has ample access to resources to raise offspring alone, while monogamous relationships are usually associated with more restrictive habitats where there are higher costs to producing and raising offspring . Biparental care reduces the energy demands that would have been otherwise borne by a single parent .
Much of what we know about the neurobiology of monogamy and polygamy has come from studies of prairie and meadow voles [5,6]. These two species share genetic and native geographical similarities, but are on two extreme ends of the monogamy-polygamy continuum . Prairie voles are the epitome of commitment; there is evidence that most of them share exclusive nests in pairs and remain together for life, even when the female vole is no longer capable of reproducing . On the other hand, meadow voles do not share long-term nesting sites, and have offspring with multiple mates . Comparisons between prairie voles and meadow voles have provided scientists with a wealth of information about how slight differences in neurochemistry and brain structures can lead to entirely different mating systems. For instance, studies have found higher activation in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), a region related to emotion-related memory formation, of prairie voles compared to meadow voles when separated from a partner . The NAcc is also a major target site for dopamine and oxytocin, molecules heavily involved in the experience of love that we will explore later on [7–9]. Prairie voles had many more oxytocin receptors in the NAcc compared to meadow voles, and blocking these receptors was able to impair bond formation between male and female prairie voles, highlighting oxytocin’s role in forming emotional attachments with a mate . Meadow voles’ inclination towards non-monogamy can therefore be partially explained by the lower density of oxytocin receptors in the NAcc; their brains are simply not set up to receive chemical signals that associate memory with emotion, and are therefore less likely to form long-lasting partner bonds. In essence, love is a strong emotion attached to positive memories .
This finding then leads to the question: is romantic, monogamous love even a choice, given its biological and evolutionary foundations? Signs still point to yes—the biological stuff leads to the “chemistry” between individuals, but whether the relationship progresses is still a series of active choices that have to be made. Among humans, monogamous heterosexual marriages have become the norm only in recent centuries, despite historical records indicating that approximately 85 percent of ancient societies had permitted men to take multiple wives . Monogamy is not innate in humans; it is possible that social norms and institutions, rather than biology, have rendered monogamous marriage systems normative . Nevertheless, monogamous relationships have been extensively studied in order to fully understand the human social experience. Perhaps the idea of having only one partner, or finding out that the person you thought would be your lifelong partner was not “the one” all along, is what makes heartbreak especially painful.
Nonsense — Sabrina Carpenter
Was there a particular moment that made you realize you were in love? Was it when they proudly proclaimed to have learned how to play the guitar just for you before proceeding to sing an off-key rendition of your favorite song? When they handed you a tissue right before you were about to sneeze? Or did it hit you like a ton of bricks out of the blue? Maybe you drop the L-bomb right away. Maybe, you decide to keep it a secret just a little longer. Either way, at that moment, everything just feels right. As wonderful and magical as it sounds, unfortunately, there is a more tangible—boring—explanation for this incredible feeling of love. To all the hopeless romantics out there, you might want to look away from this one; like many other emotions, our experience of love is merely the effect of hormones and neurotransmitters creating attraction and attachment.
A major player involved in this complex neurochemical network of love is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with motivation . Neurotransmitters are signaling molecules that travel from neuron to neuron, sending out electrochemical signals for communication between different brain regions . Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus which is responsible for maintaining homeostasis, plays a central role in the brain’s reward pathway—a system that not only makes you feel good after completing a task, but also incentivizes you to repeat that behavior . Surges of dopamine are released during the initial stages of a relationship and are responsible for the motivational characteristics of romantic love, such as performing acts of service to the other and the desire to maintain physical closeness . The neurotransmitter’s involvement in motivation and reward encourages pair-bond formation between two individuals by making love feel like a fulfilling experience [8,15].
In a nutshell, dopamine is crucial for the early bonding stages by rewarding us each time we get closer to a potential partner. However, the desire to stay together over the long term is only evoked when there is an attachment between partners, a social bond mediated by the hormone oxytocin . Different from neurotransmitters, hormones travel through the blood and circulate throughout the body before reaching their target [16,17]. Thought of as a biological metaphor for love, oxytocin is also produced in the hypothalamus and widely distributed to different parts of the brain, including the limbic system . The limbic system is a collection of brain structures heavily involved in emotion, memory, and reward valuation . Oxytocin’s involvement with the emotional center of our brain explains why we often feel safe with our partners—fear inhibition, stress reduction, and trust are just some of the many effects that oxytocin can elicit [20–22]. Nicknamed the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is often released in response to the activation of sensory nerves, such as skin-to-skin contact, as well as positive and kind interactions with others . Research conducted on human relationships has found that seeing, hearing, or even thinking about one’s romantic partner can be sufficient to trigger the release of oxytocin . Studies administering oxytocin to both men and women in established heterosexual relationships made them perceive their partners’ faces as more attractive, suggesting that oxytocin plays a role in enhancing physical attractiveness [23,24]. Furthermore, oxytocin influenced heterosexual men in committed relationships to keep a further distance away from and display less interest in attractive female strangers . These findings highlight the vital role of oxytocin in the formation and maintenance of human attachment and the reduction of romantic attraction toward others.
Given the significance of dopamine and oxytocin to the experience of romantic love, we can now begin to imagine what might happen when the person eliciting these hormones is no longer in our lives. Whether it was a mutual decision, or one decides to leave the other, its effects on our mental and physical health can be tremendous.
feel like sh*t — Tate McRae
In the short span of 30 seconds, it felt like my whole world was crumbling around me. Not to be dramatic, but if I hadn’t been sitting down, I think I would have face-planted into the carpet. That tell-tale tingling sensation started in my nose as a lump rose in my throat. I tried to stop it, but it was too late—one prick of tears in my eyes, and my vision went blurry in mere seconds. To be honest, I cannot remember the next hour clearly; there was probably
some negotiation, some begging, and a lot of embarrassing things said. Still, I somehow found myself on my way home, hoping the N95 mask was large enough to hide my tear-soaked face from that lady sitting across from me on the subway.
What comes right after a breakup is not fun at all. We have gotten so used to the feel-good feelings of oxytocin and dopamine elicited by our partners, but what happens now that this person is gone? We might feel sad, angry, anxious, or even all three at once. Changes in oxytocin levels can perhaps explain these feelings after a breakup. A study conducted on prairie voles has found that separation from a partner can cause impairments in the oxytocin signaling pathway, affecting oxytocin release into the NAcc . Furthermore, oxytocin receptor density in the NAcc is decreased following separations . These lowered levels of oxytocin play a role in the negative effects on our physical and mental health with which we commonly associate breakups . Another reason why our emotions are so volatile after a breakup is because the loss of a partner is essentially a loss of a regulator . In a relationship, each partner develops the ability to meaningfully stimulate and modulate the other’s psychophysiological arousal levels, sort of keeping a fine balance between over-stimulating and under-stimulating a partner’s emotions and associated behavior. The sudden loss of a loved one means the loss of both activating and calming stimulation, and the individual experiencing the loss initially might not be able to modulate their arousal levels on their own. Therefore, emotional dysregulation occurs because the source of stimulation and arousal modulation is no longer present .
I’ve been told this is a common phenomenon, so I have little shame in admitting it: it’s only 10:03 a.m., but I’m checking my phone for the fifty-seventh time in hopes of my ex’s name appearing on an iMessage notification. Rejection stings over and over again, as I come up empty-handed each time. Deep down, I know my efforts are futile, but I do it anyway. Just in case. Self-ruminating thoughts swirled through my head as I tried desperately to figure out what went wrong, what I could have done better, and what I could have fixed before it all fell apart.
Why can’t you just get them out of your head? Why does your finger hover over the call button even though you know that they’re not going to pick up? Why does it seem like if you don’t talk to them right now, you might just spontaneously combust? Doesn’t this behavior remind you of someone experiencing drug cravings? As discussed earlier, being in love is tied to the brain’s reward system and releases molecules like dopamine and oxytocin that make us feel good . However, drugs exploit these same reward systems and molecules to produce a “high,” keeping us coming back for more . In fact, a recent study found a neural overlap between those who have experienced rejection from someone they love and those who have experienced withdrawal from addictive substances . Heartbroken participants in the study reported thinking about their ex-partner for over 85 percent of their waking hours and yearning to reestablish an emotional reunion. Showing up at their ex-partner’s house or sending pleading texts was also common among participants . To identify the neural systems associated with both rejection and craving, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used. This neuroimaging technique measures changes in blood flow to different brain regions to study patterns of brain activity when a specific stimulus is presented [11,15]. The researchers showed participants, who had recently experienced an unwanted break-up, a photograph of their ex-partner while thinking about being rejected . fMRI scans revealed increased activation in various brain regions associated with cravings and addiction. This neural overlap with drug cravings and addiction could possibly explain why these obsessive thoughts about your ex seem to flood your mind right after a breakup .
Unfortunately, withdrawal symptoms from a drug problem we didn’t even know we had are not the only issues that we might deal with in the aftermath of a breakup. It can, in fact, also send us spiraling into an existential crisis. When drawing closer to and falling in love with someone, we expand our self-concept to include aspects of our partner to facilitate the formation of partner bonds . Self-concept refers to one’s understanding of oneself, or what comes to mind when one thinks of themselves as an individual. The self-concepts of romantic partners often become intertwined as they incorporate each other into their cognitive systems . This means that partners begin to associate more of their partner’s traits as part of themselves, growing more interdependent as their relationship becomes more central in their lives. When the relationship ends, their sense of identity comes into question as they try to determine which characteristics are actually theirs, and which ones were those shared with their now ex-partner. In one study, when asked to write a diary entry describing themselves, participants who went through a breakup wrote about themselves with fewer descriptive words—almost making themselves “smaller”—and in a way that was less clear . Turns out, you lose a little part of yourself, or what you thought was yourself, after a breakup.
Death by a Thousand Cuts — Taylor Swift
I don’t know why, but I’ve been lying in bed for two hours now, just watching the ceiling fan go around in circles. It was oddly hypnotic and calming, a welcome contrast to the million thoughts that bounced against the walls of my mind and collided haphazardly. Listening to Taylor Swift really hits different when you’re going through an actual breakup, huh? My stomach rumbles a little, but I can’t really be bothered to get up and make something right now. I really hope my roommate didn’t finish all the Froot Loops this morning.
Like being mentally exhausted wasn’t enough, physical symptoms like a gut-wrenching feeling, loss of appetite, or even insomnia can arise when we are heartbroken. These bodily sensations are a sign that our fight-or-flight response is being triggered . During the fight-or-flight response, the amygdala, a brain region responsible for detecting external stimuli and fear arousal, is activated. Upon determining that a stimulus is a threat to one’s safety, it sends out signals to release stress hormones that prime the body to spring into action when necessary. For example, when seeing a car speeding towards you, you are likely to
experience increased respiration and heart rate, tensed muscles, and slower digestion. These physiological changes happen so that energy is produced, which equips us to fight the threat or flee to safety. Uniquely, the amygdala responds to physical and emotional threats in the same way. Thus, the onset of stress caused by heartbreak and rejection can also trigger this fight-or-flight response, causing the physical symptoms we commonly associate with heartbreak .
Most people would probably sum up the experience of heartbreak into a single word: pain. It could range from a dull ache to a crushing sensation. It could be constant, or come in waves as you burst into sobs. Either way, the pain feels as real as the time you skinned your knee falling off a bike. Scientists that studied the brains of heartbroken people found some neural overlaps between social rejection and physical pain [30,34]. Phrases like “slap in the face,” “punch in the gut,” and “heartache” have all been used to describe feelings after negative social events, such as being left by a romantic partner or being rejected by someone we admire. These linguistic patterns are not just limited to English; many different cultures and languages worldwide seem to draw from terms used for physical pain to describe the emotional distress associated with being devalued by others around us . Just to name a few, words like 痛心 (Mandarin Chinese; literally “pained heart”), blessé (French; literally “injured” or “hurt”), and לב שבור (Hebrew; literally “heart broken”) have been used to describe feelings of heartbreak. Research suggests that these phrases come almost intuitively to us: social rejection recruits the same neural mechanisms that are activated in response to physical injury [34,35]. A 2011 study conducted at Columbia University hypothesized that experiences of intense social rejection can recruit brain regions involved in both the affective (unpleasantness) and sensory (intensity) components of physical pain [34,36]. That is, there is a correlation between intense social rejection and the activation of brain regions that are activated by somatosensory (physical) stimuli. Like the study on the neural overlaps between cravings and rejection, an fMRI scan was taken while participants looked at photographs of their ex-partner. fMRI recordings found that areas that support the sensory components of physical pain became active when viewing the pictures, indicating that their emotions triggered the same neural pathways as physical pain . In the brain, the pain of being rejected or broken up with is no different from a stubbed toe or a stab wound.
Congratulations — Day6
In 2015, a 60-year-old woman was admitted to a hospital in Michigan with a sudden onset of vision loss, headache, nausea, and vomiting . The night before, her dog of 16 years was put to sleep, causing significant emotional stress. She was also experiencing financial hardship and unemployment at the time. The patient was preliminarily admitted under a prognosis of a central nervous system infection, but later reported additional chest discomfort. An echocardiogram (i.e. an ultrasound of the heart) showed that her left ventricle was not pumping blood out of the heart as efficiently as it should be. Combined with other tests, the patient was diagnosed with takotsubo cardiomyopathy, colloquially known as broken heart syndrome .
Broken heart syndrome causes the left ventricle of the heart, which is responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood out to the rest of the body, to get larger and weaker . The narrowed neck and rounded bottom of the ventricle resemble its namesake—a “takotsubo,” a type of pot Japanese fishermen used to trap octopuses . A clinical research study found that the activity of stress- and fear-associated brain regions is heightened among individuals who develop broken heart syndrome . Although the exact mechanisms of how this condition develops are not fully understood, patients with the syndrome often identify an acute stressor, such as being emotionally distressed, as a possible factor that precipitated its symptoms . Broken heart syndrome is yet another example of how the mental experience of heartbreak is able to cause significant bodily distress. Interestingly, women are disproportionately affected by the syndrome, making up slightly more than 80 percent of all documented cases . In particular, there seems to be a significantly greater incidence among older and middle-aged women, compared to younger women. These sex- and age-related differences suggest that men and women respond to stressors differently, and that the neural mechanisms mediating these responses also change with age .
There have been many interesting studies on how men and women respond to breakups differently. One study found that men are more likely to utilize more aggressive methods to win an ex-partner back, such as physically showing up uninvited to places, some going as far as engaging in threats . In contrast, women tended to display less aggressive and indirect behavior such as calling, texting, or vandalizing their ex-partner’s property rather than actually threatening or assaulting the ex-partner . Another study found sex differences in men and women in response to the end of a relationship: emotional responses (anger, depression, fear, etc.) to a breakup were substantially more severe than physical responses (panic, insomnia, weight changes, etc.) in both sexes, with women experiencing higher levels of emotional and physical responses compared to men . However, this is not to say that men hurt less than women; the intensity of the emotions was comparable between men and women. He might seem like Mr. Perfectly Fine, but trust me, he’s hurting too.
thank u, next — Ariana Grande
I’ve been through my fair share of breakups, and I honestly don’t know why every single one seems to hurt the same way yet so differently. What I do know, though, is that it does get better. A study that drew its sample from a group of undergraduate college students suggested that it takes approximately three months to feel significantly better . While this is not to say that there is a specific recovery timeline or that you should give yourself one, it
is always helpful to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Breakups are stressful and can cause distress, but they can also inspire growth . Some individuals have reported experiencing positive changes after a breakup, such as feeling more confident, independent, and emotionally stable, especially in the context of the dissolution of a poor relationship that had few opportunities for self-growth . Keep your chin up, and soon you’ll be all the better for it.
This might sound a little counter-intuitive, but actively recalling and reflecting on the end of the relationship may actually be a more effective strategy to heal from a breakup . Following the experiment that found the neural overlap between drug withdrawal and heartbreak, the participants indicated that the experiment encouraged them to reevaluate their gains and losses from the end of the relationship and learn from their experiences. The researchers hypothesized that looking at photographs of ex-partners activated regions of the brain involved in the positive reassessment of negative emotional stimuli and learning . Allowing yourself to reflect on the relationship is ultimately more useful than shoving all your thoughts into a box and throwing away the key.
Although the pain of social rejection is extremely unpleasant, it ultimately serves an adaptive purpose . Like how physical pain lets us know that we are injured, emotional pain too offers some utility. The only way our primitive ancestors were able to survive was by staying in groups and finding a mate for protection. Thus, the pain that comes with being ostracized or socially rejected serves as motivation to seek out new social connections. It helps us focus our thoughts to move past the pain .
Some days, you might think you’re completely over your ex. Others, it might feel like you’re taking one step forward and three steps back. But that’s okay. Healing is a process, and it looks different for everyone. If you want to scream your lungs out into a pillow and go through an entire box of tissues in a day, go for it. Put on a comedy, indulge in an aloe skincare mask, and binge on mint chocolate ice cream—whatever you do, DO NOT TEXT YOUR EX. PLEASE. Let yourself feel all the pain, and someday, you’ll be able to honestly tell people that you’re “in a really good place right now.”
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