The neuropsychology of heartbreak

Using a series of elegant studies with fMRI scans, psychological assessment, and self-report questionnaires, Dr. Helen Fisher was the first to show that there are actual structural and functional changes in the brain in the midst of romantic love. When we are in love, parts of the brain experience a tidal surge of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays a key role in pleasure and feelings of relaxation. Interestingly, parts of the brain that are implicated in judgment, negative thoughts, and fear  experience a reduction in neural activity at the same time.  Love IS blind, at the brain level.

However, after a break up, there is a decline in dopamine and slowed caudate brain functioning that is akin to that experienced after a severe injury. Parts of the brain that light up during physical pain are equally activated when study participants were asked to relive and describe a bad breakup. Having a more brain-centered understanding of romantic grief may be crucial for mental health, psychotherapy, and healing.

Five factors that may help, based on the neuropsychological research:

  1. Avoiding visual reminders of the former partner.  These may include pictures, places, and social media that remind us of the heartbreak.
  2. Re-building dopamine, through working out, going for walks, being with a companion animal, and community service/volunteering.
  3. Using social support. Talking to friends, close family members, and even friendly strangers has been associated with increased dopamine activation.
  4. When needed, seeking professional support through counseling or psychiatric consultation, to help manage anxiety, depression, and dopamine depletion.
  5. Creating new routines and schedules separate from the past loss.  Creating novel experiences and laying down patterns of unassociated activities starts the creation of neural pathways separate from past memories.

Final note:  There’s no way around a broken heart. It’s a working through thing. Using information from neuropsychology as a tool helps.

Also see The Neuropsychology of Ghosting.

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