Your Brain on Love

Woman and man in love

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"Addicted to Love" is more than a metaphor.

Ah, love. We all want it, and we all get high on it. Who can resist the intoxicating flush in our cheeks, the weak knees, the butterflies in our stomachs, or the way our hearts go pitter-patter when we see the object of our desires? Or that heartwarming sense of joy and wellbeing that seems to infuse our very souls?

The best feeling in the world

When you’re in the throes of romantic love, certain areas of your brain are flooded with feel-good neurochemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin, which spur feelings of pleasure, euphoria and satisfaction.

You experience such a surge of energy that you may forget to sleep or eat, get a sudden rush of exhilaration and develop a laser-like focus on the one you love and feel profoundly attached to. When these neurochemicals are released, they make you feel so good that you crave another hit of them (and another, and another).

The emotional rollercoaster

But as the saying goes, what goes up must come down. As good as love feels, there can also be a flip side to that emotional high. When you lose that love—whether it’s through a breakup, divorce or death—those chemicals plummet. In their place, stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and epinephrine come marching in, launching your nervous system into fight-or-flight mode.

Extra blood flows to your muscles, which tense up for action and leads to that all-too-familiar side effect of heartbreak: the tight, squeezing sensation in your chest. At the same time, your brain diverts blood away from your digestive system, which may lead to loss of appetite or diarrhea, and your immune system function can become compromised, leaving you vulnerable to bugs and viruses.

Addicted to love

Apparently, singer-songwriter Robert Palmer knew what he was talking about when he famously sang, “You’re Addicted to Love.” A 2010 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology supports the notion that romantic love can actually be an addiction, because it activates the same reward systems in the brain as cocaine and nicotine. When you lose that love, your brain still craves dopamine and oxytocin—and your heart, of course, still craves the love your partner lavished on you.

That’s why the researchers of that study—biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, neuroscientist Lucy Brown and social psychologist Arthur Aron—refer to love not so much as an emotion, but as “a goal-oriented motivational state.” It feels good, and we want more.

Love hurts (when it's gone)

Using brain mapping studies, these researchers found that the areas of your brain associated with cravings and addictions (the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex) also light up during a breakup. We go through withdrawals of sorts, which may lead us to obsess about our lost loves or try to get them back in our lives. (One study of lovelorn participants showed they spent more than 85 percent of their time thinking of their lost loves!)

Now for the good news ...

Since love affects both your heart and brain, they can also work together to help you heal when love goes awry. The adage “time heals all wounds” actually carries some scientific weight; research conducted at Stony Brook University (SUNY) indicates that the area of the brain called the right ventral putamen/pallidum, which is associated with attachments, becomes less activated by images of a subject’s lost love as time passes.

Heal your heart

And there are signs you can take an active role in speeding up the healing process, both in your heart and your brain. Yoga and meditation have been shown to effectively treat the stress and depression that can be associated with any kind of loss.

Seane Corn, a yoga teacher based in Topanga, California, even leads “Yoga for a Broken Heart” workshops at retreat centers and yoga conferences across the U.S. She says yoga is a form of self-care that can recharge your emotional batteries and tap into your inner strength, enabling you to feel more resilient and ready to laugh (and love) again.

Just breathe

So how, exactly, do yoga and meditation help the heart heal? Research has shown that they can help relieve numerous symptoms of grief, including fatigue, sleep problems, muscle tension, anxiety and depression. Meditation triggers activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which combats depression and is responsible for producing positive emotions.

And a growing body of research shows that yoga poses and yogic breathing practices can improve your mood and soothe your nerves so that you can be happier and calmer under pressure, and therefore more resilient, even while mending a broken heart. According to Seane, by devoting even 15 minutes a day to yoga and meditation, you can start releasing the physical and emotional energy associated with grief and be ready to experience love and joy again.

For more on the science of love, see the feature article "Redefining Love," from the February 2015 issue of Live Happy magazine.

 

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