Broken heart, broken brain: The neurology of breaking up and how to get over it

Dr. Mike Dow explains how you can help your brain bounce back from heartache

Dr. Mike Dow explains how you can help your brain bounce back from heartache

(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Everyone knows that late fall is "cuffing season", that time of year when people choose someone to help them snuggle through the long dark months ahead. What happens when cuffing season ends? Springtime is the season of heartbreak, according to a recent analysis of 10,000 status updates on Facebook. Simply put, embarking on an exciting spring fling often means leaving hibernation-partners behind. We're not saying you're going to get dumped; we're just saying it's more likely in spring that any other time of year.

That's why we caught up with Dr. Mike Dow, who's a Hollywood therapist, bestselling author of Heal Your Drained Brain, and upcoming guest on The Goods. We asked him what breaking up does to our brains, and how we can deal with the pain of romantic loss.

Love is the drug

Dow's lens for understanding human psychology is the brain. He thinks that subjective experiences, like having your heart ripped out and thrown in a melting snowdrift, can be understood in terms of the neurochemical sloshings inside your skull. Dow explained that romantic love releases a flood of feel-good brain chemicals. Relationships boost our levels of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone", which helps us form bonds with others.  The two other chemicals that he associates with relationships are dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, and serotonin, which helps to regulate our mood and is associated with happiness. Love (oxytocin) + pleasure (dopamine) + happiness (serotonin) = a heady neurological cocktail!

When we break up, our brains lose their regular supply of these neurotransmitters, and we go into neurological withdrawal. This is how broken hearts break brains. Subjectively, the deficit in these chemicals can make us feel anxious, depressed, and isolated.

In this state, our brains become desperate to replace these chemicals by any means necessary. Dow thinks this is inevitable. But how we choose to replace them can determine whether we achieve a healthy breakup or prolong our misery.

From his clinical experience, Dow notices that people who have just gone through breakups tend to drink more than usual and are more likely to engage in one-night stands. These activities provide a heavy "dollop of dopamine" which hits the brain's deprived pleasure centres. In short, substance use and casual sex are fun ways to spend an evening and a rich source of ribald anecdotes. However, Dr. Mike thinks these activities also have a downside: despite the dopamine hit that draws us to them, they are not the best way to get over someone in the long-term.

The same neurochemical turbulence that makes us play fast and loose at the bar can also affect our social media habits. We all know *someone* who has stalked their ex's social media, riding every update like an emotional rodeo. This is the oxytocin-starved brain inhaling the vapours of lost love. It's bad news because it prolongs the connection that we have to let die.

Breaking the bond: Go "Love Sober" for 30 days

The trickiest of the heartbreak neurotransmitters is oxytocin. Dow told me that "oxytocin is the bonding chemical… and the brain needs time to undo that bond." This is why he recommends going "love sober" for 30 days. This means avoiding contact with your ex: don't call them, don't look at their social media, and especially don't have sex with them. Doing so will just make it harder to dissolve the neurological bond your brain has formed, which will stand in the way of getting back to your normal self.

That said, going sober doesn't mean going cold turkey. Dow says that the lovelorn "get tunnel-vision" and need to "remind themselves that there are other fish in the sea." According to the good doctor, flirting, making out in bars, and enjoying the attention of others all count as self-care. Dow even recommends "Get on some dating apps and just start swiping just so you can see that there are matches…then just never contact people". The aim here isn't to rush into something else, but to demonstrate to yourself that people want to connect with you.

Replacement therapy

While it's important to rebuild your romantic confidence, Dow does not recommend jumping into the next thing too quickly. He says we should spend the month after a major break-up finding alternative ways to supply our brains with the chemicals they crave. This can mean spending lots of time with close friends and cuddling pets. Dow also recommends engaging in non-romantic activities that provide pleasure, passion, and purpose. He calls this "replacement therapy". The idea is find healthy ways to keep up our supply of feel-good neurotransmitters.

While pets and better social media habits are important, Dow insists that a holistic approach is best to maintain our neurological balance. In his most recent book, Heal Your Drained Brain, he argues that diet, exercise, and regular sleep are key elements of brain health both in and out of relationships.

A word to the heartbreakers

In the interest of balance, I also asked Dow if he had any advice for people who want to end romantic connections while causing the least harm possible. Is it possible to break a heart gently? Dow told me he has less experience here, because the jilted are much more likely than the jilters to turn up to therapy. Dow observes that many people-pleasers find it hard to leave a relationship at heartbreak. Their motivations are good--they want to make sure the other person is okay--but the result is that they often drag out breakups longer than necessary. This is to be avoided. When he treats these cases, Dow tells them "you are ultimately making this person happy in the long-term by making their life miserable in the short term." Dow recommends limiting contact as much as possible during the first month of a breakup in order to let the neurological bond dissolve.

Dr. Mike Dow will be on The Goods, Wednesday, May 2 at 2/2:30 on CBC

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.