Break-Ups Matter: Adrenaline and the Broken Heart

How we handle break-ups says a lot about us, whether we’re the breaker or the breakee. Unfortunately, sometimes the person who did not make the decision to end the relationship has the toughest road ahead. We have the obvious sadness and anger that comes with feeling rejected or abandoned, partnered with the idea that the people around us are watching to see how we’ll handle ourselves.

Part of the reason for all the scrutiny is that in times of stress, people who feel rejected or abandoned might be tempted to indulge in a  progression of behaviors that, if left unchecked, can go from commonplace to criminal. Most people are able to refocus their energy before they do something unfortunate, but examining some physiological clues can help us understand why some people go too far.

So, what is it that makes us behave in ways that we know are self-destructive? There’s a possibility that adrenaline and dopamine could be conspiring against us. Brain scans of individuals who are in love are similar to scans of people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Both brains show activity in the motivation/reward centers. In both cases, when the source of pleasure is removed, there is a need to replace it, much like the cravings of an addict going cold turkey. A person who feels rejected can actually go into physical withdrawal. The source of pleasure that was stimulating the brain’s reward center has been removed. This partially accounts for the tendency to self-medicate with alcohol or food after a break-up. It is an attempt to replace the high of being in love with a substitute.

To add to the miserable wallowing in chocolate and vodka, we also have to contend with a chemical response to anger. This is the piece of the puzzle that leads to irrational behaviors, large and small. Extreme distress triggers and adrenaline rush. This affects our heart rate and breathing. Sound familiar?  On a chemical level, this is similar to the stressors that trigger panic attacks and PTSD. Adrenaline also triggers the appetite surge or suppression that can follow a break-up.

So, when we have a break-up and the adrenaline is pumping. This is the moment that in which we either take control of our emotions or leave ourselves vulnerable to an adrenaline-fueled progression of bad decisions. This is the crossroads at which we can indulge in vengeful, petty actions that reflect poorly on our character or find a way to flip that switch to a more constructive outlet for our feelings.

Our behaviors spiral out of control because we get hooked on the drama and excitement of acting out against the person who has caused us harm. Someone has taken our power and taking it back, first in small ways, then bigger and more destructive ways, gets our adrenaline pumping and gives us a rush of excitement. Everyone’s descent down the rabbit hole is different, but there exist some common categories of behavior that show the ways in which we get hooked on the adrenaline rush that comes with acting out. We indulge in each step until the wave of excitement fades. Soon,we need a new, bigger dose of adrenaline. The pattern resembles that of the thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie. The first tiny act of vengeance feels exhilarating, but in time the rush wears off, and we have to raise the stakes.  The only difference between this process and someone who base jumps to force an adrenaline rush is that the person who has been dumped is getting their fix by ramping up the drama instead of seeking physical risk.

While the exact progression of actions varies wildly, there are some basic categories of adrenaline-inducing actions in which we might indulge should we choose to go down the rabbit hole. Each phase of action has its own rewards and pitfalls. Most people seek a way to get themselves back on track after the first two phases. It’s those who don’t reconsider their actions who are likely to experience the increasing adrenaline rush of creating drama and seek higher and higher stakes.

Passive Aggressive – Social media has become ground zero for passive-aggressive behavior, usually in the form of vague subtweets or forlorn memes. These are often mixed with posts that declare that we are strong, which is the opposite of what everyone is thinking after the 20th “poor me” post. These posts beg friends and family to ask us if we’re okay. We receive an insane amount of pity ‘likes” and supportive comments. Best of all, those who know us well will correctly guess the problem and publicly deride the person who has crushed our soul. How perfect! We are guiltless because (technically) we aren’t the ones who went public with the drama. Someone else said it for us! Research has shown that the positive feedback we receive on social media triggers the release of dopamine, which makes us feel happy. Physiologically, this “high” is alleviating our withdrawal symptoms just like margaritas and Ben and Jerry’s once did. Sadly, nothing can last forever. Friends become tired of our self-pity, and the “likes” drop off surprisingly quickly.

Aggressive Aggressive – Obsessive texting and calling crosses the line from passive aggression to plain old aggression. When the thrill of passively evoking pity from others fades, we are left angry and willing to express our hostility in ways that might be very out of character for us. For some, that can induce feelings of power they might not have experienced during the relationship. It is a way of taking back some of the control. It says, “You think you can walk away, but you can’t.” This is particularly ill-advised if the situation involves a custody dispute, in which case it is an especially bad idea to put hostile thoughts in writing.

Attention Seeking – This is the stage at which it might be time to talk to a trusted friend or a therapist. Showing up unannounced, staging “accidental” encounters, cutting, and threatening self-harm are all signs of desperation. These are also signs that we now need more intense drama in order achieve that rush. We’re sad, but we’re also excited by the scheming and the execution of elaborate plans.

Revenge – Revenge takes many forms. What most of them have in common is that the person seeking revenge is often the only one who can’t see that their behavior has crossed all accepted social boundaries. Rational people recognize that those who resort to stalking and violence have suffered a mental break with reality, but is it possible that these acts are partially fueled by an adrenaline addiction? Is the rush brought on by feelings of power causing people to take increasingly vicious steps to keep that “high”?

Interestingly, many of the suggestions for recovering from a bad break-up are the same as those suggested for recovering from an adrenaline addiction.

Yoga, meditation, deep breathing – All of these practices help to calm the mind and relieve anxiety and stress.

Exercise – Exercise will not only help to take care of your body after the binging/starving state, it gets you out of the house. If you take a group exercise class, you might even meet some new people.

Diet – Eat clean, minimize your alcohol and drug intake, including (with medical approval) prescriptions that are stimulants, which can provoke anxiety.

Talk – Talk therapy or the support of trusted friends can help ease the transition from coupledom to single life.

Cultivate new interests – Instead of downloading Tinder and setting yourself up for a disappointing and cliche rebound, download Meetup and find an archery or movie group in your area.

The common thread in both recovery situations is reaching a state of healthy calm. Both our emotions and the hormones they trigger can subside.

At the end of the day how we handle a break-up matters because our reaction sends a message to others about how we handle adversity. No one truly knows what led to the end anyone else’s relationship, so friends and colleagues take their cues from how each person behaves after the split. It isn’t fair, but if one person is seems to behave irrationally, some will assume the the relationship ended because that person is irrational. The best public reaction is always to have no reaction. If necessary, share the deep, dark, and ugly with trusted friends. Taking your hostility public will only put you at risk of getting hooked on the drama.

Further Reading:

How To Overcome Adrenaline Addiction: Tops From A Former Addict

The Painful Reality of Adrenaline Addiction

Why You Can’t Eat or Stop Eating After a Break-up

Addicted to Love–The REAL Reason We Turn to wine and chocolate When Heartbroken

Why Some People Are Adrenaline Junkies

Leave a Reply