So you’re heartbroken. It’s his fault, it’s her fault, it doesn’t matter. It hurts and you want it to stop because you have shit to do and you’re tired of eating your body weight in pizza. Now I’m not saying that knowing what’s going on in the brain will make it stop hurting, but I’m not NOT saying that either. Sometimes knowing how something works in the brain weakens it’s ability to have power over you. Other times you get annoyed at someone making it so science-y and simple and you go back to the pizza.
Just bear with me. I timed myself reading this, it’s 4 minutes and 16 seconds of your life to become that much better at dealing with something you’ll probably go through a couple more times and will for sure have to help a friend, child, or rando deal with at some point in your time on this earth. (p.s. keep in mind when I use the word “love” here, I’m referring to romantic love)
So love is made up of 3 main components:
1. a strong bond
2. a lot of pleasure
3. bursts of happiness
Now obviously you’re not always feeling a strong ass bond, intense pleasure, and blissful states of happiness with your partner. That would be an absurd expectation that we’re all 100% going to fail at exceeding and only Michael Scott and Holly could actually obtain that level of perfection. But love is definitely a solid mix of these 3 components that comes in waves and sometimes stays for longer at different periods throughout the relationship.
These 3 love components are associated with 3 different brain chemicals.
1. a strong bond = oxytocin
2. a lot of pleasure = dopamine
3. bursts of happiness = serotonin
So we have a bonding chemical, a pleasure chemical, and a happiness chemical. That is love. You’re welcome. The end.
So what happens then when we are used to receiving continuous waves of bonding, pleasure, and happy chemicals in a relationship?
Imagine if you had a bottle of sprinkles. The bottle normally has a bunch of little holes on the top to dispense the sprinkles. The more holes in the bottle, the more easily you can get sprinkles into your frosting (your brain is the frosting, the love chemicals are the sprinkles). If you’re getting a ton of sprinkles flowing into your brain, your brain is going to say “Woah… we should slow down here, let’s take away some holes” (the holes are the chemical receptors on your brain). Your brain physically changes so that it doesn’t get too bombarded with all the sprinkles at once. Now that your brain has physically changed, you will need more and more sprinkles to feel the same “high” as before since you have less holes in the sprinkle bottle. You know how good it feels to have that many sprinkles in your frosting though… so you keep coming back to the person who gives you that feeling.
This my friend, is an addiction; an addiction to love and to the person who gives you the love. This means you’ll begin to associate the person with:
1. the one who I have the strongest bond with and trust the most
2. the one who gives me the most pleasure in life
2. the one who makes me the happiest
Now typically, we break up because one of these 3 associations (or all of them?) starts to be false. We can’t lie to our brains. Your brain can be a deluded little buddy at times (i.e. anxiety), but you can’t lie to it. If the happy chemicals just aren’t present for extended periods of time, you won’t be able to convince yourself you are happy any longer with that person.
So you break up.
Now imagine what your addicted brain must think… “What the heck!? Where is my fix of bonding, pleasure, and happiness chemicals?? Where are my sprinkles?”. Since you no longer have this person in your life, your brain can’t get the fix you need. Your brain starts to freak out feeling like it’s “missing something” like its “lost without them” like you have a “huge hole in your heart” because of the lack of these 3 love chemicals. You can’t focus on a thing because your brain is constantly trying to figure out what is happening and how to make it stop. So what happens next? Your brain tries to find its fix of love chemicals elsewhere…
Exhibit A: The Unhealthy Way
– drinking 7 shots of tequila
– eating a pizza and a half
– stalking your exes instagram and FB photos from 2001-present day
– replaying your last shared meal at Chick-Fil-A
– texting them that you “want closure”
– listening to Adele
Exhibit B: The Healthy Way
– crying aggressively into your roommate’s pillow
– having your buddy pep talk you how you’re hot shit and will find new love
– cuddling with your friend’s new puppy
– going on a 5-mile run for the first time in your life
– hugging your grandma
– watching every season of Friends three times
– listening to “Keep Your Head Up” by Andy Grammer on repeat until every lyric is burned in your brain
– flirting with the hottie at the bar (when ready)
I’m not saying a breakup is as simple as getting your fix back of these 3 love chemicals and being good to go. You’ll have to create new, steady and healthy habits of bonding, pleasure, and happiness chemicals for some time before you can finally feel “okay without them” (a.k.a. you’ve completed the withdrawal and are “sober” for a long enough period of time to break the addiction).
This doesn’t need to be something that causes you to suffer for a while though. After a hearty handful of cries, Friends episodes, and bear hugs, you can surpass the grievance phase and move into the “creating the new” phase. I won’t give you a time limit on the grievance phase because it genuinely can be different for everyone. But from a scientific standpoint, oxytocin (the bonding chemical), can learn to dissociate your loved one with the “strongest bond in my life” belief in a period of about 30 days.
It may be fun and reckless to “get your fix” in unhealthy ways, especially when you’re in college and the opportunities for the unhealthy fixes are practically thrown in your face. (yes, in college, pizzas are literally thrown in your face). But if you’re a bit older now, maybe a bit more mature or aware, you genuinely want to heal this crappy feeling of a heart break and focus back on your life.
Your brain might try and convince you you’ll be searching for the fix of love chemicals forever, but that’s physically not possible. The fact that you crave them means they’ll eventually be satiated once again. Just try and satiate the need with some puppies and the Office, instead of tequila and “break-up sex”.
It doesn’t help. Trust me.
p.s. at the end of the day… the love from another person is what gives us our validation; the validation that we are special, happy, and worthy of love. To be honest, the #1 way to heal this loss of validation is to fall in love with yourself (again?). Maybe too cheesy, maybe the right amount of cheese… all cheese aside, a huge reason heartbreak hurts so much is because your validation is gone which is something you can begin to create anew for yourself starting right now. You are special. You can be happy alone. You are worthy of love. Anything that convinces you otherwise is just a bunch of red poison (see BrainLids Method Step 1). Go buy your own sprinkles.