As a student of neuroscience, I have learned that the most intimate relationship is the one between your head and heart. They talk like best friends via the common carotid artery, which sends blood from the heart to the brain at a running speed of three feet per second.
The brain has developed mechanisms to sense danger, and it responds immediately in the presence of any threat. When a threat is identified, an emergency call is made to the hypothalamus, the command center for our hormone system.
The hypothalamus then kicks the sympathetic nervous system into gear, surging cortisol through our veins. Adrenaline floods our system. Our heartbeat quickens, strengthening the flow of blood to our vital organs. Our airways open. With each breath, we are more alert. Our pupils dilate. In the presence of danger, we are prepared to fight.
This is not what happens in a breakup.
The physiological response to a rejection is entirely different from that of a threat. We have an innate need for acceptance, just like we need water and food to survive. In a manner somewhat opposed to when we’re faced with a threat, rejection activates our parasympathetic nervous system.
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A signal is sent through the vagus nerve from our brain to our heart and stomach. The muscles of our digestive system contract, making it feel as if there’s a pit in the deepest part of our stomach. Our airways constrict, making it harder to breathe. The rhythmic beating of our heart is slowed so noticeably that it feels, literally, like our heart is breaking.
After hearing those fateful words of rejection in the parking lot, I went home and cried on the floor of my apartment, tucked into my best friend’s embrace.
“Everyone has a first heartbreak,” she said gently. “The first one just hurts the worst.”
I felt like such a cliché, crying until I had a headache and plowing through an entire box of tissues. Studying neuroscience had taught me too much. I knew how the chemicals in my brain were driving my emotions. I wanted to use science to reason with myself, to convince myself that soon the hormones would stabilize and I would start to feel better.
Unfortunately, years of schooling can’t teach you about recovering from heartbreak the way experience can.
I wanted to go back to the middle of our relationship. I didn’t miss the beginning: the insecurity, the butterflies and that period of awkwardness when you’re just getting to know each other. And I definitely didn’t want to revisit the end. I wanted to return to the middle, when everything was calm, routine and dependable. It was easy then, and pain-free.
We were both active and engaged in our own spheres of campus life, and our paths never crossed until a mutual friend set us up on a blind date.
It wasn’t surprising that we had never met; he is a student athlete, and I can barely walk without tripping. While he was finishing problem sets in the engineering building, I was running experiments across campus in my neuroscience lab.
Our connection was intense and effortless. When we worked side by side in his room or mine, I felt remarkably safe amid the kind of silence that usually makes me feel too vulnerable.
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I loved the way he slid his fingers into mine as we walked home and how he sometimes squeezed my first finger with his thumb extra tightly, just to remind me that he was there. The electricity from his touch sent a cascade of oxytocin from my posterior pituitary, lowering my cortisol levels and enveloping me with unspoken compassion.
With dopamine bursting out of my nucleus accumbens, I would be engulfed by feelings of exhilaration and bliss. I’d fall asleep next to him with my hand on his chest, calmed by the metronome of his heartbeat.
It is no coincidence that positive emotions feel so good; the hormones released when you’re happy, in love and feeling appreciated all help regulate your heartbeat into a “coherent” pattern. The fixed beating sets a rhythm for the rest of your body so that all other homeostatic mechanisms are carried out in sync. With my body in equilibrium, living felt much easier.
I wish I could say I got over my heartbreak quickly. To let others think I did, I kept my pain private, crying in the shower and at night when I hoped my roommates wouldn’t hear.
I felt embarrassed as I remembered my mother saying, “If he doesn’t want you, you don’t want him.” I tried to dedicate myself to my friends and to the course work that would prepare me for my medical school applications a few months later. I wanted to be like Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde”: confident and self-reliant.
But heartache is like any other pain, and it takes time to heal.
What’s crazy about the pain of a broken heart is that your body perceives it as physical pain. Love activates the same neurological reward centers as cocaine, and losing love can feel like going through withdrawal after quitting drugs or alcohol cold turkey.
Regardless of whether we’re in pain from withdrawal or experiencing an emotional rejection, neurons in our anterior cingulate cortex and insula start firing. We think the only way to feel better is to experience the high again; we physically crave it.
Like addicts, we can’t think clearly and argue with ourselves over every decision: “Should I call him? No, don’t be desperate.” As pain receptors fire, the result is that we feel broken, physically and emotionally.
What I didn’t know at the time, though, is that there is a saving grace. Modern medicine provides an over-the-counter remedy that has been shown to ameliorate the emotional effects of heartbreak.
In research published in 2010, scientists found that acetaminophen can reduce physical and neural responses associated with the pain of social rejection, whether in romantic relationships, friendships or otherwise.
So if you’re hurting from heartache, try popping some Tylenol.
Withdrawal eventually ends, and so does the pain of rejection. I hate how much I cried and all the time wasted missing him. I hate how much it hurt, but still feel so grateful for the relationship we had because it taught me what it means to love and be loved.
Now I know what I want: a relationship that will fill me with dopamine and steady my heartbeat when he entwines his fingers with mine. I’ll know it’s right when I can talk freely for hours, yet also be at ease in silence. I don’t spend so much time searching for that feeling anymore, wondering how love should feel, because I’ll recognize it when it comes and won’t force it if it’s not there.
Recently, I broke someone else’s heart. He was a friend first, but he said he wanted to be more. I gave it a few weeks, because he deserved that. We went out to breakfast one day, lunch another and dinner sometime after that. It felt nice to be with someone who cared so much about me, but my nucleus accumbens was quiet. There was no dopamine high when he held my hand, and my heartbeat wasn’t settled on a rhythm that matched his.
I tried to end it with kindness and respect, but there was obvious strain and confusion in his eyes as his parasympathetic nervous system kicked into gear while I gave my reasons. I could imagine the muscles of his digestive system contracting, his heartbeat slowing.
I had been there. I knew he would be O.K., and wanted to tell him so, but experience had taught me that I was the wrong person to help.
This conflict of my head and heart — of my wanting to offer comfort but knowing I shouldn’t — was making my pulse race and my body tremble. So I simply hugged him goodbye and walked away, hoping that someone else would think to give him Tylenol.