Your Brain on Love or Drugs

Posted by on 10 25 13 in Love Addiction News | Comments Off on Your Brain on Love or Drugs

Alphas, an American TV drama that aired on SyFy (and is now running on Netflix), is about a secret team of people with superhuman abilities called “Alphas” who worked to prevent crimes committed by other Alphas. In one episode airing in the first season, the team is dispatched to a small town to discover why its inhabitants keep dying. With the help of the CDC, the Alpha team learns that the victims appear to die of rapid rot—caused by extreme withdrawal from an object of addiction, namely a person. The people are dying because they have become highly dependent upon the “love-chemical,” known as oxytocin, which is produced in our brains when we experience intimate bonding with another, such as when a mother coos to her infant or when a couple in love holds hands or kisses.

In the episode, whenever the victims suddenly withdraw from the intense levels of oxytocin their Alpha villain has flooded them with, their bodies become overwhelmed with abnormally high levels of cortisol—the stress hormone. In the storyline, if cortisol is too high, rapid organ failure (and apparently rotting) can occur.

It’s true that when we become bonded with another person it can feel like we get high off them, and that’s because we do. Oxytocin and other chemicals like endorphins and dopamine are released in spades, engaging the reward circuit in our brains. Connecting intimately with a person makes us feel good with the very same chemicals we become addicted to through the use of any addictive substance, such as heroin or cocaine; or any addictive process, such as eating, gambling or sex.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, authored a study that examined the brain scans of people who had been recently broken-hearted while they observed images of their exes. According to the report by ABC News, “The parts of the brain that lit up were the same ones associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction, physical pain and distress and attachment.”

Previously, Fisher had conducted studies on the happily-in-love, but she said this study was the most important she would do.

A person who has become addicted to another is literally chasing after the oxytocin produced when engaged in intimacy of any kind with her love object—be it cuddling or sex, to simple acts of proximity and emotional closeness felt between friends or relatives. When the relationship becomes threatened, when distance is placed between the addicted and the object of addiction, or when the relationship is ended entirely, very real withdrawal symptoms occur in the addicted person. His or her body begins to produce cortisol, the very opposite of oxytocin. High levels of cortisol tell the body to react as though there is a mountain lion bearing down ready to attack—preparing it to fight, flee or freeze. This is why we often see people suffering heart-break react so wildly and irrationally, as though their life is on fire and rather than put it out, they scramble in reaction to the burning.

Addicted Relationships at a Glance

One tell-tale sign that you might be addicted to another person is that you are willing to endure a lot of misery and suffering rather than walk away. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you are putting up with physical abuse, but that can be one component in the addicted story. Sometimes there is rage and anger in the addicted relationship but more often, the story involves people staying through unending emotional toxicity; even though their needs go forever unmet; even though they feel unloved or unwanted; and/or even when they are criticized and undervalued.

Just as often, people who find themselves addicted to another are playing out a scenario in which their needs can never truly be met. Their love object is unattainable, unavailable or unwilling. Maybe he’s already married or maybe she has said she just doesn’t want to get serious. Love addicts rarely seem to recognize the reality for what it is—a venture destined to end in failure and likely heartbreak—and keep up the pursuit believing they “need” this other person in order to be happy.

In How to Break Your Addiction to a Person, Howard Halpern discusses the connection between stress, illness and substance or other addiction with relationship addiction:

Maybe the Surgeon General hasn’t determined it yet, but staying in a bad relationship may be dangerous to your health. It can shake your self-esteem and destroy your self-confidence as surely as smoking can damage your lungs. When people say that their relationship with their partner—a lover or spouse—is killing them, it may be true. The tensions and chemical changes caused by stress can throw any of your organ systems off kilter, can drain your energy, and lower your resistance to all manner of unfriendly bugs. And often it can drive one to the overuse of unhealthy escapes, such as alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates, narcotics, tranquilizers, reckless pursuits, and even overt suicidal acts.

Fisher’s study lends scientific support to the growing community of mental healthcare professionals who believe love and relationships can be just as addictive as any other process, and that people who suffer the most from these addictions deserve the legitimacy behind the brain science. Blaming our behaviors on brain chemistry is never wise and has the potential to be abused by some, but by and large, opening the field to further studies on the problem, as much as on potential treatments, is essential.

The story in Alphas carries a symbolic message. When we enmesh too fully with the wrong target of affection, we can come away feeling great emotional and physical pain, to the point of risking spiritual rot. Love addicts everywhere must first learn to hold and maintain healthy boundaries for themselves, guided by the deep inner sense that what they truly need can’t be found in a relationship outside themselves; the strength to meet their own needs existed within them all along.