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Brain Science and Broken HeartsUnderstanding how a traumatic event, such as heartbreak, affects a person biologically can sometimes help the sufferer cope. Thanks to studies in neuroscience, this theory is readily available to put into practice. It turns out that the body’s reaction to social rejection likely originates from the brain’s response to physical pain and drug addiction.

The divorce process is one that is usually heartbreaking for both spouses. Anyone who has gone through an unwanted or unexpected split from their significant other, whether it be a high-school sweetheart or someone they’ve been married to for 15 years, knows the distress that accompanies it. The anguish is both psychological and physical, creating depression or other emotional issues as well as depleting one’s immune system and physical well-being.

Love Hurts

Here’s an interesting simile to ponder: filing for divorce is like getting punched in the stomach. Literally. According to a neurological study from Columbia University, brain scans show the same brain regions activated when participants view a picture of their ex-lover and when a hot-probe painfully touched their arm.

Why does physical pain response correlate with social pain? Ph.D. writer Melanie A. Greenberg explains that for our early ancestors the result of rejection by one’s social group often meant physical pain at the hands (or claws) of a predator would soon likely follow.

We used to live in the wild, where survival meant not getting eaten by bears or other large animals with sharp teeth; and being alone would have made you more vulnerable to this brutal fate. Your brain (and ancestral instinct) likes to jump the gun and warn you of what could happen if your lover leaves.

Love is Addicting

As if the physical pain reaction wasn’t enough, your brain also thinks that a breakup means not being on your favorite drug of choice. The parts of the brain that deal with reward and motivation activate when someone sees a picture of their ex, and when they take a drug they’re addicted to.

The post-breakup cravings for a former lover are the result of a depletion of the neurotransmitter dopamine– which rises when one receives a rewarding substance–and the consequent desire to get it back.

Not seeing someone you love can cause you to go through the same kind of withdrawal symptoms that a drug addict goes through when they are trying to quit. This leads to further “intense distress and physiological as well as psychological discomfort.” So in case you weren’t feeling enough pain from social rejection, the symptoms of heroin withdrawal to top it off.

Silver Lining of Hope

Luckily, the act of learning and understanding all of this brain chemistry that occurs during heartbreak is a way in and of itself to cope with it. The more you know the reasons behind your reactive behavior, the more you can assume a certain amount of control over it through proactive choices and leaning on a strong support system of loved ones. It’s important to allow yourself time to heal from what your brain perceives as physical pain; and it’s important to remember you are probably not in literal danger of getting attacked by a prehistoric bear.

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