Once you’ve emotionally invested in a relationship, a breakup can be traumatic. It can cause a huge disruption in your life, short term and long term, and most likely you’ll experience feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and confusion. But this is not news.

What is news, however, is that a recent study found that a breakup could actually disrupt one’s whole-brain dynamics. This information was recently published in the journal, Neurolmage: Clinicale, and was discovered by doing an fMRI brain imaging study.

The authors, Martinez, Marsman, Kringelbach, Deco, and Ter Horst, talked about their study by saying: 

“Measures of integration, spatial diversity and temporal variability were calculated to characterize the dynamic spatiotemporal organization of resting-state whole-brain connectivity.”

They underwent the study by working with 69 participants who had experienced a break up within the last six months, and who admitted to feeling symptoms of depression because of said-break up. These individuals did not have any diagnosed depressive disorders.

The study included the participants undergoing an fMRI brain scan, which gave them insight into how the brain functions post-break up. They found that these participants had varying degrees of reduced spatiotemporal brain dynamics, depending on the severity of their self-proclaimed depression. 

I.e. the more depressed they felt, the less global integration they experienced. This means that these individuals found it difficult to regulate and integrate incoming information from different regions of the brain.

Despite this being a recent study (May, 2020), these results are seen as a starting point to exploring depression from a different angle. Using their measurements, they may be able to discover how brain dynamics are affected in individuals with clinical depression, especially when said-individuals are under high amounts of stress.

Having said all of this, let’s take a look at a less recent study that also focused on the functioning of the brain post-break up. 

Physical Pain Associated with Breaking Up

In 2011, Edward Smith, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, underwent a study that included university students who had recently experienced an unwanted break up in the past six months. Smith and his team also used an fMRI scan to conduct their research, and what they found was extremely interesting.

In the study, the participants were shown pictures of their exes and were asked to think about any kind of memories and experiences that they had shared with ex. After this, they were shown images of their friends whilst being exposed to a form of pain (a hot probe on the arm). 

What did these two activities have in common? Both activated the same regions of the brain (such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex). These regions are connected to feelings of physical pain.

What does this tell us about break ups? That humans tend to process them as they would physical pain, and that the brain considers a break up equally as intense as being physically hurt.

Addictive, Obsessive Behaviour Associated with Breaking Up

It’s also no secret that, when experiencing a break up, some tend to employ obsessive thinking. This can include persistently looking at their ex partner’s social media pages, wondering what went wrong in the relationship, blaming themselves, and experiencing feelings of loss and trauma.

For that reason, professor Lucy Brown Ph.D and her coworkers conducted research on 15 college students who had recently gone through a break up, and who still admitted to loving their ex. 

The research, done via fMRI, found that when the participants looked at images of their ex, activity was found in the ventral tegmental area, nucleus accumbens, and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex part of the brain. These parts are associated with feelings of reward and motivation, specifically the release of dopamine that is experienced during drug addiction. 

This result tells us that, for some, a break up can bring about feelings similar to that of craving a drug during the withdrawal stages. This, of course, can cause intense physiological and psychological distress.

On the other hand, this small-scale study may not paint an accurate picture, as it’s impossible to translate the results to a larger population. What can be deduced however, is that these young adults showed less feelings of distress after a mere 10 weeks and beyond, which showed the researchers that that ‘craving’ feeling diminishes the more time passes.  

With the above research, it’s no wonder that the effects of a break up can be devastating for those who experience it. The fact that it can be viewed similar to that of being physically hurt and or drug addicted says a lot, and translates to the fact that we should all be compassionate with ourselves and with others who are going through a break up. 

There’s no quick fix to heartbreak, but trying to avoid places, people, or activities that act as a trigger for your recently-ended relationship is a start, and a great way to try reprogramme the brain. In time, and with self-care, patience, and a great support system, you’ll be able to have a more positive outlook on life. But remember: don’t be too hard on yourself, because your feelings truly are valid.