What Happens to Your Brain During a Breakup? We Asked a Neuropsychologist

Love is, in fact, a drug (at least to your brain)

Paula Boudes for PureWow

Here’s something we can all agree on: Breakups suck. There's nothing quite like falling in love—and sacrificing pieces of yourself to make a relationship work—only to have it come crashing down (here’s to anyone watching Blue Valentine on repeat right now). Heartache aside, however, it’s interesting how our behavior changes in the weeks, months and sometimes years that follow a breakup. Why is it that you impulsively decide to dye your hair red or block your ex from college on a random Tuesday afternoon? We wanted some scientific answers—and after picking the brain of neuropsychologist Dr. Aldrich Chan (no pun intended), that’s just what we got. Here’s what happens to your brain when you go through a breakup. (PSA: You should definitely bookmark this for when you want to break no-contact during month two.)

Meet the Expert

Dr. Aldrich Chan is a licensed neuropsychologist, founder of the Miami-based Center for Neuropsychology and Consciousness (CNC) and author of the 2021 book Reassembling Models of Reality. He received his doctorate from Pepperdine University and has experience as both a clinical researcher and practitioner.

1. Your Fight or Flight Is Activated

Shocker: Breakups are emotional—and we’re not just stating the obvious. They prompt a surge of activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that regulates emotions and attaches those emotions to memories. Not only does this make breakup pain (grief, sadness, anger) feel more intense than usual, but it also triggers your body’s fight-or-flight response. Back in the era of cavemen—when ghosting was more about: Is he avoiding me or was he eaten by a T. Rex?—our amygdalas were there to sense danger and propel us into survival (fight or flight). Nowadays, this is the same part of the brain that’s most active during a breakup. It senses you’re in danger and pumps out stress hormones (more on that below), just like it would if you were being chased by something prehistoric. 

2. You’re Less Likely to Make Rational Decisions

“The prefrontal cortex, crucial for decision-making and rational thinking, experiences decreased activity during a breakup,” Dr. Chan says. “This makes it challenging to think clearly and make sound decisions.” In other words, thanks to a bombardment of shock and emotion, your brain is likely to experience decreased activity in the area that understands logic. This makes sense, as breakups often feel illogical—the prefrontal cortex can’t comprehend what’s happening, so it takes a back seat until your stress levels come down. At the same time, however, the decrease makes it difficult to regulate your emotions. For some, this could mean the inability to compartmentalize (crying between Zoom meetings while trying to work). For others, it can lead to impulsive decision-making. Ever wonder why people move to Europe or buy a Chanel bag on an overdrawn credit card after their relationship ends? They can thank the prefrontal cortex (or lack thereof) for that. 

3. Your Hormone Levels Change

As mentioned above, your body releases a slew of chemicals when it senses you’re in danger. Dr. Chan explains, “Hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin and cortisol can undergo significant changes. Dopamine levels tend to decline, resulting in decreased feelings of pleasure and reward (which can then contribute to depression and grief). Oxytocin levels may also decrease, leading to feelings of loneliness, since this hormone is associated with social bonding and attachment.” Cortisol levels, on the other hand, may increase, which Dr. Chan says can cause heightened anxiety and difficulty coping with the breakup. “This can impact an individual's behavior and mood during a breakup, often leading to withdrawal-like symptoms.” Indeed, addiction is actually a major theme when it comes to breaking up…

4. It Can Lead to Addictive Behavior

In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, 15 people who hadn’t gotten over their breakup were studied in an MRI. The scans showed that brain regions associated with cravings and addiction—often linked with cocaine and nicotine —lit up like a Christmas tree. According to Dr. Chan, “These findings indicate that our brains may process breakups in a way that resembles withdrawal from addiction. Breakups can be emotionally challenging, which can lead to a range of psychological and physiological responses. The intense emotions and cravings prompted by a breakup may be similar to the withdrawal symptoms experienced by individuals trying to overcome addiction. This could also be due to the strong attachment and emotional bond that develops in a romantic relationship…it creates a sense of dependency that makes the end of the relationship feel like withdrawal from a substance or addictive behavior.” 

You want to keep the above in mind when it comes to initiating contact and dating after a breakup. While the first few days are marked by shock and stress, the following weeks may prompt doubt and second-guessing whether you made the right choice. Oftentimes, this feels psychological—that your brain is trying to tell you, “Turn back before it’s too late,” but it's actually a normal part of the process. Without the logic of the prefrontal cortex—and an influx of stress hormones pumping from the amygdala—your brain is looking for a fix, just like it would if it were devoid of addictive substances. The decline of oxytocin and dopamine can also add to this chase, since your body is still craving a sense of pleasure (i.e., why you might fixate on how good things were in the beginning). The silver lining is that, unlike with drugs, breakup withdrawal has a lot to do with perspective. Instead of prematurely getting back together or trying to replicate the feeling with someone new (again, before you’re ready), your brain naturally heals to see things clearly over time.

“The time it takes for the brain to recover from a breakup can vary from person to person,” Dr. Chan says. “Several factors can influence this process, including the duration and intensity of the relationship, the individual's attachment style, their support system and their coping mechanisms.” So, we asked the doc to give us an approximate timeline of how long it takes to heal.

The Bottom Line: Breakups Get Better Over Time

Disclaimer: Everyone's breakup experience is unique, and the timeline for emotional recovery can vary widely. People may also move back and forth between stages, and the intensity and duration of each stage can be different. Still, Dr. Chan says the typical breakup timeline looks something like this: 

  • Shock and Denial (Days 1-7): The brain may initially go into shock, causing the amygdala to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The sudden change in relationship status will also trigger the brain's fight-or-flight response, heightening your emotions. 
  • Intense Emotions and Grieving (Weeks 2-4): As the reality of the breakup sets in, the brain experiences less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This, coupled with changes in neurotransmitter levels (serotonin, dopamine), makes it difficult to think rationally and regulate emotions. You’re most likely to feel reactive or impulsive during this time.
  • Acceptance and Understanding (Weeks 5-8): The brain starts to process the breakup logically, regaining momentum in the prefrontal cortex to see the situation clearly. Stress hormones and neurotransmitter levels also start to return to normal and the amygdala is less active in perceiving danger. 
  • Rebuilding Identity (Months 2-3): This is when you learn that acceptance holds the opportunity for self-reflection. With a return to activity that favors logic over emotion, the brain can now piece together how to proceed. This is when you can start to rebuild your sense of self and identity outside of the relationship.
  • Recovery and Reinvestment (Months 4-6): The brain has begun to adjust to its new reality, and there is a shift toward positive thinking. Now, especially when engaging in activities that bring you joy, you can start to imagine what being happy in (or outside of) a relationship looks like. 
  • Integration and Moving Forward (Month 6 and beyond): Over time, the brain integrates this experience into its overall understanding of life. Memories of the relationship may still exist, but the emotional charge diminishes, allowing for a more forward-focused mindset.

What Happens to Your Brain When You Feel Left Out?

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Associate Editor

Sydney Meister is PureWow's Associate Editor, covering everything from dating trends and relationship advice (here's looking at you, 'soonicorns') to interior design, beauty...