Breakup Neurochemistry 101: What Happens In Your Brain And Body When Your Relationship Ends

What if I told you that the pain, the sleepless nights, the frantic texting and internet stalking that occur immediately after a separation, breakup, or divorce is inevitable?

The panic that won’t stop, the obsessive thoughts, the withdrawal from activities and the people you love. You feel restless and on edge. There is a weird spacey feeling like you are living in an alternate universe. You can’t even think about eating. You have a one track mind, fixated on your ex.

You wonder, what the hell is wrong with me? ( I sure did). Your friends and family start to get tired of you obsessing and repeating the same worries. You need to hear their voice. You need to talk to them. You just can’t seem to stop no matter how hard you try.

You just want to feel normal again.

These symptoms can be explained by science.

Now, I’m not talking about the deeper issues and circumstances of the breakup or your marriage. Those emotions are like a punch in the gut and are complex. For this post, I’m talking about the involuntary response of your body and brain.

When you, as a human, are rejected or separated from someone you are attached to, the attachment bond breaks and triggers a whole cascade of effects in your brain and body.

And personally, when I learned this, I found it to be a huge relief! To know I wasn’t going crazy, that it’s a natural process, and just knowing and understanding what was going on inside of me lifted a huge weight off my chest.

You are not alone in this. Since the dawn of humans, women and men all over have felt these same awful symptoms when a relationship ended.

And it’s not even just humans, mammals in general exhibit similar symptoms when they are separated from attachment figures. So, if you felt special with the level of pain you are feeling, I’m sorry to inform you that dogs, apes, and rats have similar body and brain responses to separation.

At the most fundamental level, a breakup or divorce is a separation from someone you were attached to and activates a cascade of reactions in your brain and body.

Whether the relationship was good or bad is not really relevant to these symptoms.

It’s the breaking of an attachment that causes the reaction and we all know very well that we can still be attached to people we don’t have a good relationship with.

So, what happens the moment someone says, “It’s over” and the attachment bond is broken?

Your body goes into fight or flight mode.

Cortisol, which is your body’s stress hormone is sharply elevated. This tells your body that there is a major stressful event happening and you need to do something about it!

In addition to increases of stress hormones, there is an increase in catecholamines (which are like adrenaline). You are on full alert. Stress hormones and adrenaline are flooding through your body, all signaling that you are in danger and you need to fix it ASAP.

Your body is telling you that you need to re-establish connection, a bond has been broken.

You frantically text, call, email, stalk your ex on social media.

You may beg, grovel, apologize for things you’re not even sure you did.

You may impulsively drive to their house or their work.

It’s an almost uncontrollable urge to re-establish the connection. The adrenaline and cortisol are causing you to search and look for your ex everywhere.

You pace. You stare at the ceiling unable to sleep. Your heart rate increases. Your body is keeping you on high alert to find this lost connection.

It doesn’t care how he treated you or how things ended.

So, why this reaction?

First, it’s theorized that it’s an evolutionary survival reaction.

In tribal days, your chance of survival and avoiding predators depended on you being part of a group. Being alone meant almost certain death. Our bodies have no idea that it’s the 21st century and we will not die from being single.

Second, humans are social creatures and biologically wired for connection.

Our health and wellbeing depend on close connection with others. The breaking of an attachment bond is truly seen by our bodies as a threat.

However, the body can’t run on high alert forever.

If you aren’t reunited then you eventually move into a second phase, where your body actually slows down its own processes.

You go from frantically pacing and staring at the ceiling to curling up into a ball and crying. You may lie for hours on end on you bed, unable to move or leave your house.

You want to be left alone, even if friends want you to go out, all you want to do is wallow in your misery.

Your heart rate decreases and may even show irregular beats. You sleep lighter with less dreaming or REM sleep. Immune function is reduced, so you may be more likely to get sick.

The world is dull. You feel inertia. You may lose weight because you can’t even think about eating. Almost all your thoughts are focused on the loss of the relationship.

MRI scans performed on humans after a breakup show that the emotional pain of the breakup activates the part of the brain that also signals physical pain. Pain signals in the body are really alert systems, telling us that there is something we need to pay attention to, a danger.

To make things even more interesting, if all this wasn’t painful enough, romantic love has been shown to activate reward pathways in our brains, specifically release of dopamine, similar to drugs of abuse like cocaine and amphetamines.

When we experience a breakup, we actually go through withdrawal and “crave” our ex like an addict.

Do we have any control over any of this? Can we stop our “addiction” and “craving” for our ex? Is there anything we can do to alleviate at least some of our body’s response?


The good news is there are things we can do to help calm down our alarm system and gain some semblance of sanity.

Here are four ways you can work with your own neurochemistry start to feel better and in control:

1. Exercise

This is by far my favorite and I recommend exercise for anyone going through a breakup. The affects on my mood were almost immediate. It was astonishing in how much better I felt.

We learned earlier that we are “addicted” to our ex because of our sudden withdrawal of dopamine when they left.

Exercise increases dopamine.

It gives your brain that dopamine its craving in a healthy way, leaving less of a craving for your ex.

Also, exercise increases serotonin, the neurotransmitter involved in increasing your mood. Add to that a flood of endorphins, especially after an aerobic workout like running, walking, cycling, or dancing. (I still rock my ’90s MTV The Grind Hip Hop Aerobics VHS tape from time to time.)

After a workout, your reward center is activated, you are flooded with dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. You feel better, clearer, and calmer.

I get it, it’s hard to get motivated to exercise when you can barely get out of bed. But, trust me, you will start to feel better.

2. Listening to music.

Music also releases dopamine in your brain.

Now, I don’t mean sad songs or any music that reminds you of your ex. I mean fun music, something you really like.

I listened to a lot of music from my teen and college years, music from times before I met my ex. I admit that the New Kids on The Block helped me get through my divorce. It was fun, I started to sing along, memories started to flood back of happy times and old friends.

Empowering music works too. I highly recommend making a divorce or breakup playlist. You can check out mine here.

3. Physical Touch.

Ok, I know what you are thinking, how am I going to get physical touch when I’m separated or alone? Hear me out.

During my separation, I felt so lonely, yet I was not ready for dating yet. One of the worst feelings was missing the touch. I don’t mean sex. I mean the little things, a hug, holding hands, someone sitting against me when watching TV, someone else in my bed when I woke up.

Luckily, it’s not just intimate touch that benefits your brain. A hug from a friend or family member counts too.

My problem was that I was living alone over 2,500 miles from my family in a new city with few friends, so I had to find another way.

What helped? Massage!

According to studies, massage lowers cortisol (remember our stress hormone) and increases dopamine and serotonin. (Our addiction and feel good hormones).

I can attest to feeling much happier and relaxed after a massage. Plus, if you find a chatty masseuse, you may get added benefit of someone to talk to. It’s kind of like going to your hairdresser, which turns into a makeshift therapy session.

4. Get some sunshine.

Get out of the house for a little while. When you get up in the morning, take a walk around the block. Exercise outside if you can.

Sunshine increases serotonin and serotonin increases your mood.

When I was going through my divorce, it felt like a chore to even think about leaving the house if I didn’t have to, let alone putting a bra on or showering.

Trust me, get out of the apartment, get out of the house. Put your headphones on, play some NKTOB or your breakup playlist and walk around the block. Trust me, just do it. You’ll feel better than if you didn’t.

Even though we have little control over our body’s natural reaction to separation after the breakup, we can rest assured that we are not alone. What we are going through is a normal biological and evolutionary reaction.

Unfortunately, we all have to go through it. But, now that you know what’s happening to you, you can try your best to mitigate the pain and desperation.

Exercise, sunshine, listening to music, and going for a massage. Not bad ways to help you feel clearer, calmer, and happier.

If you enjoyed this post, come join my newsletter: