“It’s over.” Those two words have inspired a million weepy songs and films (and at least 100-times that many hysterical texts). But while you’re probably feeling the ache in your chest, research shows the real s*#$-storm is taking place in your brain. From a crazed complexion to “take me back!” behavior, here’s how messes with your head.
When Your Love Leaves
Feeling in love causes your brain to flood with dopamine, a feel-good chemical that lights up your noodle’s reward centers and makes you feel on top of the world. (This same chemical is associated with drugs like cocaine.) But when you lose the object of your affection, your brain’s reward centers don’t immediately power down, shows research from Rutgers University. Instead, they keep craving those reward chemicals—just like a drug addict who wants more but can’t have it.
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The same study found those gotta-have-more responses spur activity in other regions of your brain related to motivation and goal-targeting. Those, in turn, override the parts of your noodle that hold your emotions and behavior in check. As a result, you’ll do anything—or at least, plenty of embarrassing things—to get your “fix.” This explains why you’ll drive by his house, stalk his friends, or otherwise act like a loony tune in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. Put simply, you’re a love junkie and your former partner is the only thing that will satisfy your brain’s cravings, the research indicates.
At the same time, studies from Johns Hopkins University show your heartbroken brain experiences a huge dump of stress and fight-or-flight hormones (adrenaline and cortisol, mostly), which can mess with your sleep, your heart rate, your complexion, and even your immune system. You’re more likely to catch a cold during a breakup. You’re also more likely to break out. (Fun!)
Feeling the Burn
The same parts of the brain that fire when you are physically injured also light up when you’re hurting emotionally, shows research from the University of Michigan. Specifically, when people experienced a burn akin to holding a hot cup of coffee without a sleeve, the secondary somatosensory cortex and the dorsal posterior insula lit up. The same areas fired when those people thought about their recently departed partners. Some studies have shown feeling deeply happy and in love can actually reduce the pain you experience from a physical injury. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: Physical pains hurt more if you’re also suffering from a broken heart.
Long-Term Love Lost
More research shows that, among long-time couples, the neurological effects of love—and the aftermath of a breakup—are more profound. Brain scientists understand that anything you do, from reading to walking down the street, creates or strengthens the neurological pathways and connections in your head related to that behavior. And studies suggest that, in the same way, your brain develops pathways linked to living alongside your love. The longer you’re with your partner, the more those pathways spread and strengthen, and the more difficult it will be for your noodle to operate normally if your love is suddenly absent, the research indicates.
Not too comforting (or surprising): Studies have found time is among the only remedies for all of these breakup-induced brain reactions. Another possible cure for lovesickness, according to some research? Falling in love again.