It’s no surprise that being in love messes with your brain, but could it be dangerous to your health? This Valentine’s Day, take a moment to find out what actually happens in your body as you fall in love. How does your body react to keep you looking so crazy in love? Let’s take a look at how the average relationship can function like a drug from first sight to last fight.
You see them there, across the classroom. You’ve never met them but wow, they are gorgeous and chiseled as a Greek statue. You can’t take your eyes off of them. You totally miss anything the professor was saying, but—WHO CARES? DID YOU SEE THE WAY THEY LOOKED AT YOU? You run into your friend in the hall and they comment to you that your pupils are dilated.
You’ve just experienced your first hit on a drug; let’s call it “Jesse.” The moment you saw Jesse your brain flooded with adrenaline, norepinephrine, oxytocin and dopamine. This caused you to be energized, your heart racing, your palms getting a little sweaty. Your pupils dilated because your attraction triggered your nervous system’s sympathetic branch. And those hormones made you feel pleasure, introducing the desire/reward response that will keep you wanting to see them again and again. This is the same response that keeps drug users addicted. But you’ve only just begun; you are determined to see Jesse again.
You are braver than most – you actually talked to Jesse, and you didn’t collapse! (Despite feeling like you would.) You found Jesse’s Facebook page and wow, look at that smile! You can’t seem to stay out of their photo albums…all of them. When you sit next to each other Jesse always smells just amazing. And just now, was that a text from Jesse? Asking you out on a DATE? TONIGHT?! You feel sick. But a good kind of sick? You know there is no way you’ll be able to eat.
Now you’ve done it. Your body is reeling from the emotional and hormonal chaos of reciprocated feelings. Even though you can’t be around Jesse 24/7, you can see those photos on Facebook as often as you’d like, which provides a high in smaller doses to keep you addicted.
The smell you love so much is deeply connected to your memory, and every time you smell it outside of an interaction with Jesse, you will remember and again get a temporary hormone high. And that sick but good sick feeling? That’s the hormone cortisol contracting the blood vessels in your stomach. This feeling will go away as you become more comfortable around Jesse.
You and Jesse have been dating about a month and a half and things are going amazing! But man, you are tired all the time. You can’t seem to sleep or sleep well so that you aren’t exhausted during the day and walking around in a daze. Clearly, this relationship is fate. There’s no sign of breakup on the horizon and you feel more creative than ever. It may be early, but…maybe this is love?
Now that you’ve been dating a little while your hormones have started to become a little less noticeable. They’re still there; in fact, they can keep you from sleeping well at night, and instead keep you up thinking about Jesse, talking with Jesse and dreaming about your could-be future with Jesse. There is also some research that suggests your creativity may be sparked by being in love. This is because those in love begin to gain a more long-term perspective for life, which actually triggers the part of your brain associated with creative thinking.
Day 100 – Expectation
Today Jesse told you those three life-changing words, “I love you.” Over the next months and years your relationship continued to blossom. Maybe you even got married! Even though you don’t always see eye to eye, you work together to preserve your relationship and you are both the better for it. You are so glad that you met Jesse!
If all goes well, the benefits of long-term relationships and marriage can mean better overall health and possibly even longer life! One study found that married men and women have better heart health than unmarried people. Another study found that men in long-term committed marriages are more likely to have stronger bones (but only when their spouse is emotionally supportive). In another study, “those who entered their 40s married had fewer risk factors for premature death than those who were divorced or never married.” So you may actually be healthier and live longer!
Day 100 – Reality
Today Jesse told you that you both should “see other people…” Ouch. You can’t figure out what went wrong. And worse than that, your whole body feels like dead weight. Your chest feels like it has a shard of ice stuck in it, making it hard to breathe. Everything reminds you of Jesse and nothing makes you happy. You replay memories over and over in your head. You dredge up photos and mementos. You’re torn between sobbing all over them and ripping them into a million pieces. You don’t like yourself and you wish you had never met Jesse.
According to the Washington Post, 70-75% of unmarried couples will break up within the first year of a relationship. Those odds are most certainly not in your favor. And if you do break up, all those hormones that made you feel great at first will make you miserable now. Just like a drug addiction, when you break up, you experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Your hormones served to bond you to Jesse, and now the longer you dated the harder it will be to “quit.”
If your heart literally hurts after a breakup, that’s because rejection activates many of the same brain regions as when you experience physical pain. Broken heart syndrome has a scientific name – stress-induced cardiomyopathy – and it’s caused by stress hormones temporarily disrupting one part of your heart’s normal pumping function. It can cause heart-attack-like symptoms and in very rare cases, you can actually die of a broken heart. Fortunately, most cases are treatable, and as they say, your heart will go on.
Valley Women’s Clinic is Here for You
True, most people don’t die of a “broken heart.” You may, however, have some concerns after the breakup if you were sexually active with Jesse. You may be worried about a potential STI or unplanned pregnancy. If those things are a concern for you, Valley Women’s Clinic is here to help. All of our services are free and confidential, including pregnancy tests and STI testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Our client advocates can also offer a listening ear if you want to share your situation with someone. Request an appointment for our Blacksburg or Radford clinic.
So this Valentine’s Day, don’t forget that love is a drug—use it responsibly!