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Addicted to Love: Romance, Rejection, and the Brain

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While it has become more common to aspire for a dream career, academic pursuit, or personal goal first, lifetime union with a romantic partner remains the ultimate aspiration for many individuals. Humans desire life partners, evolutionarily speaking, to provide a stable and functional environment to raise offspring in. Maternal love and romantic love function similarly in that their evolutionary purpose is to maintain and promote the species, and both types of love require and encourage two individuals to stay together for a long period of time.[1] Many people, however, do not get married because they want to raise children and promote the species. They marry because they are in love, a more complex emotional behavior than perhaps any other reward-seeking or goal-oriented brain process.[2] A person’s brain chemistry is altered when falling in love. The human brain genuinely receives romantic stimulation as a drug; we can become addicted to the object of our affection. Like all drugs, though, romance can be abused and cause withdrawals. Our brains and bodies are thrown out of balance when the thing we desire vanishes. Heartbreak, rejection, and bereavement are some of the most ubiquitous and tormenting concepts in human history, and researchers continue to shed more light on the brain chemistry behind these processes.

Love on the Brain

For us, falling in love means butterflies in our stomach, physical desire and attraction, the excitement of a new adventure, and anxiety and anticipation for the future. For our brains, falling in love means dopamine, vasopressin, and oxytocin. The areas of the brain involved in love include the hippocampus, the nucleus accumbens, the anterior cingulate, and the striatum. These brain regions are highly concentrated with dopamine, the body’s reward neurotransmitter.[3] Dopamine has an inverse relationship with serotonin, one of the body’s major inhibitory neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of calm, relaxation, and rest. Thus, it is common for people who have just fallen in love to have low levels of serotonin.[4] Oxytocin is perhaps the most well-known chemical associated with romance. When released in the brain, it aids in forming social bonds, protects the body from stress, and heightens physical pleasure.[5] In studies involving sheep, females injected with oxytocin rapidly form a strong attachment to males, even if they are meeting for the first time.[6] Oxytocin has also been shown to reduce a person’s amiability and ability to cooperate with outside groups.[7] Vasopressin has similar influences on behavior. In humans, vasopressin stimulates bonding and paternal instincts, but also promotes aggression toward other potential mates.[8] Thus, oxytocin and vasopressin aid in the formation of a loving bond, but cause people to become protective and preferential toward their chosen partner and potentially antagonistic toward others.

Addicted to Romance

Romantic love has some strikingly similar qualities to forms of addiction, making many researchers and psychologists consider love almost as a type of drug. Love is associated with obsession, dependence, euphoria, and distortion of reality.[9] Dopamine, released upon falling in love, is the same neurotransmitter released when using cocaine and cigarettes.[10] The euphoria surrounding romance becomes addicting to individuals; they cannot feel as “high” without the object of their desire. Studies have found that even if romantic partners are briefly separated for a business trip or other minor absence, emotional disturbances and sleep pattern disruptions are observed.[11] The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for evoking a fear reaction. Studies have found that just seeing a picture of your romantic partner partially deactivates the amygdala, and holding hands with a loved one can reduce pain and discomfort.[12] Activation of the hypothalamus (responsible for releasing dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin) is associated with romantic and sexual love, but not with maternal love.[13] All of these factors make romantic love so desirable and addicting. As with any addiction, however, loss of love can cause painful withdrawals.

Rejection: Withdrawal from Love

Romantic rejection, heartbreaks, affairs, divorce, and bereavement have been the topic of literature, art, and music for centuries. Everyone dreads the potential end of a relationship. Breakups can evoke anxiety, depression, and drug abuse in individuals, no matter what the circumstances of the breakup are.[14] In fact, the area of the brain involved in detecting and preventing physical danger is the same area associated with our social attachment system. We can literally feel pain when a strong social bond is severed.[15] This phenomenon is thought to have evolved to discourage maternal separation, but it makes our social and romantic lives torturous when things go awry. Romantic rejection affects the same brain pathways associated with cocaine and cigarette withdrawals.[16] Studies have even found that up to six months after a breakup, people may have decreased immune system activity.[17] It is not just the person on the receiving end of rejection who is negatively affected, though. There is evidence that people who keep secrets from their partner or who get involved in an affair are more likely to succumb to injuries and chronic illnesses.[18] There are several hormones and neurotransmitters associated with stress, including cortisol, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These chemicals are released from the adrenals when the body perceives stress. A study by Kiecolt-Glaser et. al. examined how relationship stress effects these hormones and neurotransmitters. Some highlights from the study include:

  • Divorced couples have higher levels of norepinephrine and epinephrine than they did before the divorce
  • ACTH (which stimulates the release of cortisol) was twice as high in women who reported dissatisfaction with their marriage
  • Divorced couples had significantly higher epinephrine levels after an argument than married couples after an argument
  • Couples reporting dissatisfaction with their marriage had significantly higher levels of norepinephrine[19]

Romantic rejection and conflict cause emotional upset and disturbance to the body’s whole neuroendocrine system. Just as falling in love causes a surge in dopamine and subsequent euphoria, withdrawal from love causes pain, immune system dysfunction, and depleted dopamine levels. Divorce and romantic conflict can alter the body’s entire stress response system. Don’t be afraid of seeking out romance to spare yourself the pain of potential heartbreak, though. Love and companionship may result in withdrawal symptoms similar to drugs of abuse, but unlike drugs of abuse, love is one thing you can’t overdose on.

Resources

[1] Zeki, S. (2007). The neurobiology of love. FEBS Letters, 581(14), 2575-2579. doi:10.1016/j.febslet.2007.03.094

[2] Fisher, H. E., Brown, L. L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104(1), 51-60. doi:10.1152/jn.00784.2009

[3] Zeki, op. cit.

[4] Zeki, Ibid.

[5] Badcock, C., & Bleyer, J. (2017, March & April). Tend and Defend. Psychology Today, 50(2), 38-39.

[6] Young, L. J. (2009). Being Human: Love: Neuroscience reveals all. Nature, 457(7226), 148-148. doi:10.1038/457148a

[7] Badcock, op. cit.

[8] Young, op. cit.

[9] Fisher, op. cit.

[10] Zeki, op. cit.

[11] Field, T. (2011). Romantic Breakups, Heartbreak and Bereavement—Romantic Breakups. Psychology, 02(04), 382-387. doi:10.4236/psych.2011.24060

[12] Zeki, op. cit.

[13] Zeki, Ibid.

[14] Field, op. cit.

[15] Eisenberger, N. I., & Lieberman, M. D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: a common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(7), 294-300. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010

[16] Fisher, op. cit.

[17] Field, op. cit.

[18] Badcock, op. cit.

[19] Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Bane, C., Glaser, R., & Malarkey, W. B. (2003). Love, marriage, and divorce: Newlyweds stress hormones foreshadow relationship changes. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 71(1), 176-188. doi:10.1037//0022-006x.71.1.176

Clinical Contributor

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Disclaimer: The information provided is only intended to be general educational information to the public. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have specific questions about any medical matter or if you are suffering from any medical condition, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

 

Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard, MS, NC

Ramona Richard graduated with honors from the University of California with a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology and graduated summa cum laude with a Master’s Degree in Health and Nutrition Education. She also holds a Standard Designated Teaching Credential from the State of California, is a California state-certified Nutrition Consultant and a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals.

Ramona has participated in nutrition education in both public and private venues, including high school and college presentations, radio and public speaking for the past 20 years. She is the owner of Radiance, a nutrition consulting company, the Director of Education for Sanesco International, and a medical technical writer.

Disclaimer: The information provided is only intended to be general educational information to the public. It does not constitute medical advice. If you have specific questions about any medical matter or if you are suffering from any medical condition, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider.

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