By: Leah Hovey
When we lose someone close to us, we experience grief. Grief is characterized by an array of emotions including but not limited to deep sorrow, anger, emotional numbness, disconnection, and acceptance. Grief affects people differently depending on the relationship lost and can often last a long time.
Grief is often considered exclusive to the experience of someone passing away. However, grief can manifest for many reasons- including when we experience a breakup. Losing someone in a romantic capacity can be just as troubling as losing someone to death as they are no longer going to play a vital role in your life.
There is research that indicates that our brain responds very differently when we are ‘in love’. Research has indicated that brain activity is found in cells called A10 cells. These cells create dopamine (what is responsible for the happiness we experience) which goes directly into our ventral tegmental area. This area is our ‘reward system’ area which is directly linked to our emotional area of the brain. This area is responsible for rewards, motivation and wanting. As research in drug addiction has proven, this area is directly impacted by cocaine use which makes the drug so addictive. Because these A10 cells are transferred directly to out VT area, the addictive feeling or rush of emotions caused by love is described as being ‘addictive’ (Harvard EDU, 2019).
When individuals are heartbroken, the effects on our brain are prominent. Researchers Helen Fisher, Lucy Brown and Art Aron conducted a study to examine how individuals who are in love yet have been dumped neurologically reacted. They discovered three main areas impacted in this study: the region in the brain that is associated with experiencing romantic love (the VT area), an area within the brain responsible for examining the benefits and losses, and an area within the brain that is associated with deep attachment towards individuals (Fisher, 2008). Helen Fisher explained just how addictive love really can be. She claims that “romantic love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it's going poorly. And indeed, it has all of the characteristics of addiction. You focus on the person, you obsessively think about them, you crave them, you distort reality, your willingness to take enormous risks to win this person” (Fisher in TEDtalks, 2008). As intense as love can be within our brains, there is also significant research to indicate the emotional pain of losing that partner can show up in the brain in the same areas we experience physical pain (Fogel, 2012).
Grief affects us in all areas of our lives. It is important to be considerate to ourselves and others when losing someone in any capacity it manifests. The next time we see someone who has recently been through a break-up, try to be compassionate. Within the following weeks I will be examining how we can all get past relationship grieving and discuss how we can move forward from this loss.
Edwards, S. (2019). Department of Medical Science: Love and the brain. Retrieved from https://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/love-and-brain#targetText=”,, and mother-infant attachment.
Fogel, A. (2012). Emotional and physical pain activate similar brain regions: Where does emotion hurt in the body? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/body-sense/201204/emotional-and-physical-pain-activate-similar-brain-regions
TED. (2008, February). Helen Fisher: The brain in love [Video file]. Retrieved from
Carter, K. R., Knox, D., & Hall, S. S. (2018). Romantic Breakup: Difficult Loss for Some but Not for Others. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 23(8), 698-714.
Slotter, E. B., & Ward, D. E. (2015). Finding the silver lining: The relative roles of redemptive narratives and cognitive reappraisal in individuals’ emotional distress after the end of a romantic relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32(6), 737-756.