Your Brain on Lust and Loss

High in love or felled by loss? It's simply temporary insanity.

I once developed a crush on a married man so consuming I could barely function. He sold European cheeses at the local street market and after a month of fantasizing about running my hands all over his pecorinos, I could no longer approach him without feeling my mouth go dry and my limbs begin to shake.

It was a maddening distraction, a physical response I couldn’t understand. He was a bit flirty, but he was a gregarious Dutchman and I had to assume he flirted with others. He never made a pass at me. So why did this crush hijack my brain for the better part of a year?

What I discovered, after doing a little digging, was that a brain clouded by lust is in a state of temporary insanity, beset with the powerful chemicals of our most primal desires. Though I was enjoying the euphoria of my smitten preoccupation, I wanted to understand what was going on at the molecular level, to somehow accept that my feelings were an accidental release of chemicals over which I had no control.

There’s no accounting for what will activate our desire for a specific person- that’s a question better left to the psychologists unpacking how we were imprinted as children. But lust is the gateway to love, it’s pleasurable beyond compare, and essential to the propagation of our species.

Attraction is triggered inside a tiny organ called the hypothalamus, located behind our nasal sinuses. Once registered, the hypothalamus directs the pituitary to start churning out the androgenic hormones testosterone and estrogen which drive us to seek out sex with the object of our desire. At the same time, high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine begin to bathe our neurons, creating a sense of exhilaration. These chemicals make us feel giddy and enraptured, why sleep and appetite are often suppressed. They make your mouth feel like cardboard and your heart flutter.

Serotonin, regulator of mood and social behavior, becomes temporarily suppressed when in the throes of early love. Lowered serotonin can lead to obsession, compulsion and social withdrawal as you focus intently on your love interest. It’s why we ruminate over elaborate erotic fantasies. When I was fixated on the Cheeseman I imagined him feeding me feta with his lips then running his salty hands down my naked body. Over and over again.

Dopamine, the chemical of bliss, is behind both love and drug addiction. In fact, a brain on cocaine is nearly identical to a brain falling in love. When we’re under the influence of dopamine our prefrontal cortex – the place where reasoning occurs – essentially shuts down. Critical thinking and rational behavior become nearly impossible. When love makes you feel this good, promise yourself that you won’t get married, buy a house or have a baby until enough time has passed where you have been deemed rational by a third party. How long will that take? Most peg it at a minimum of six months and up to two years. This should be sufficient time to notice your mate’s maddening faults, at which point you can logically decide if your kind of crazy plays well with theirs.

Since that unrequited crush, I’ve experienced this high a few more times. But I was aware now of the process affecting my brain. I could enjoy the pleasure as the neurobiological thing it was, without thinking we would live happily ever after. In fact, those relationships lasted less than a year. Now when passion hits I don’t rush to make joint holiday plans or start dreaming of the house we’ll create together before I’ve gotten my head out of the love chemical clouds.

At the other extreme of passion lies pain. Heartbreak creates its own neurochemical imbalance. When a cherished love affair ended, I felt as though a steel-toed boot was pressing against my chest all day. I could not get out of bed or put together a coherent thought. The loss of love is a grief that can be every bit as intense as the death of someone close to you.

The chemicals of loss trigger our ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system, our stress response. This signals the adrenal glands to secrete excess cortisol, normally present to assist with homeostasis, but during emotional upset responsible for those feelings of numbing agitation and anxiety. It’s like running a sprint without leaving your chair. At the same time the parasympathetic system is also activated, the ‘rest and digest’ response which slows down movement and thought and why we flop on the couch and don’t want to get up. Essentially, our bodies are pushing on the accelerator and the brakes at the same time during a grief reaction.

As observed in the brain, emotional pain and physical pain are registered in the same region. So whether you have a broken leg or a broken heart, your brain experiences the two as nearly identical. And believe it or not, one study showed acetaminophen (Panadol or Tylenol) may ease the sensation of emotional pain the same way it relieves physical pain.

Break ups also trigger the deep fear of losing our social connections. From an evolutionary standpoint, the loss of one’s tribe is a real threat to survival. Our brains are built to register pain and fear the moment we sense rejection. And being rejected can still feel like addiction in the brain, the loss like withdrawal from our drug. We seek a fix, a re-connection. This drives us to do stupid stuff like obsess over our former lover’s Facebook feed, or make melodramatic appeals for reconciliation by text at 2 am.

What could be most damaging in the long run after suffering the loss of love is dwelling on negative emotions, the sense that you’re not lovable or that you’ll never feel love again. If done to excess it can affect the neural pathways of the brain, reinforcing pessimistic beliefs and making it much more difficult to regain an upbeat outlook.

In ‘How Your Brain Reacts to Grief’, Thomas Crook, PhD writes “Indeed, when brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons. These areas are associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs. This shows the pervasive impact loss or even disappointment can have. And the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more developed these neural pathways become. The result can be chronic preoccupation, sadness, or even depression.”

I eventually talked myself out of my crush on the Cheeseman and I grieved for a while over what I thought was lost. I came to recognize this fixation as my craving for connection when my own marriage was suffering its last gasps. Eric Fromm, author of ‘The Art of Loving’ puts it this way: “[Often two people] take the intensity of the infatuation, this being ‘crazy’ about each other, for proof of the intensity of their love, while it may only prove the degree of their preceding loneliness.” The Cheeseman was lighthearted and funny with a megawatt smile. He felt like beams of sunshine in my life. I needed that. But it took me awhile to realize it didn’t mean I should try to have sex with him.

Whether you’re high on love or in the dumps from loss, keep reminding yourself that this state is temporary. Don’t confuse the magnitude of these feelings with having found your one true soulmate or having lost the best thing that ever happened to you. Chances are, neither of those are true. Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep and maintain your previous friendships. You don’t want to wake up on the other side of loss unhealthy and without your social safety net intact. Nor should the end of love’s intoxication indicate you are out of love. You are, in fact, only beginning.

Love, Karin

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