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An unexpected and unwanted breakup can cause considerable psychological distress. People report feeling as if they have been kicked in the stomach or blindsided and knocked down. Feelings of rejection and self-doubt are common, as is the feeling of being stuck and unable to let go, even when one wants to. Friends and family may push the person to get over it and move on, yet brain research suggests this can be very difficult to do, at least in the first few months.
Breakups and the Brain
The research on relationship breakups in unmarried people (generally college students) gives us some clues as to why these events are so subjectively painful. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans show activity in several specific brain areas when rejected individuals see pictures of their ex-partners. Researcher Edward Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University and his colleagues put out fliers in Manhattan and ads on social networking sites to recruit participants who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the last six months. Using fMRI scans, the researchers assessed which brain areas lit up when participants looked at pictures of their ex-partners and simultaneously thought about experiences they had shared together. They compared this to when participants looked at pictures of a friend and were exposed to pain via a hot probe on the arm. The scientists found that the same parts of the brain lit up when individuals looked at the partner pictures or experienced physical pain, but not when they looked at the friend pictures. These brain regions, including the insular and anterior cingulate cortex are known to be associated with pain experience.
fMRI of the brain during a breakup
Our brains appear to process relationship breakups similarly to physical pain. There may be an evolutionary reason for this. The function of pain is to alert the person to physical danger or harm so she can take protective action. In the animal kingdom, one’s chances of avoiding predators are much higher as part of a group than alone, therefore social rejection may have been an actual threat to physical survival for our early ancestors. If this is the case, it might partially explain how difficult it is for many people to let go of the ex-partner and move on.
Obsessive Thoughts & “Cravings”
People who have recently been rejected by their partners often develop obsessive thinking. They may ruminate persistently about the ex-partner, how they are feeling, whether they are missing the relationship, and so on. These thoughts or feelings of loss may be triggered by places they used to go to together, people they used to Continue reading