An unwanted and unexpected separation may entail significant psychological stress. Often people parallel this feeling with a fist in the stomach, or a stab in the heart. Despite the efforts, the help and support of their friendly circle, this feeling proves to be very difficult to fade away, at least in the first few months. In an attempt to understand the subjectivity and universality of the pain of separation, psychologists have focused their research on studying the brain.
Edward Smith and his colleagues, having collected a sample of people who had just experienced an unwanted and painful breakup, investigated their brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they were looking at photos of former partners and thinking of the moments they spent together. Afterwards, their brain activity was examined while researchers were inflicting pain in their arm, and when looking at pictures of their friends.
The researchers found that there was activity in the same parts of the brain of participants when they were looking at photos of former partners and when they felt pain, but not when they were looking at pictures of their friends.
Our brain tends to perceive the pain of separation in the same way our body perceives pain. This is very likely to be happening, due to evolutionary reasons. Pain serves the purpose of making the presence of physical danger noted to the individual, in order for him to be able to be protected. For our ancestors, social rejection was a direct threat to their physical integrity, as in the animal kingdom you are less vulnerable to enemies, at the moment you are part of a team. This may offer an explanation as to why some people feel so vulnerable without a partner and always want to be in a relationship.
Often, people that have just experienced an erotic rejection show obsessive behavior. They constantly think about what they did wrong, how they could win their previous partner back and how much they miss their relationship. These thoughts can become more intense when they found themselves in places and situations that remind them of their previous relationship or when they see their common friends. The individual processes the separation as he would process a traumatic event, spending long periods of time avoiding emotional pain and relevant thoughts, as well as long periods of time where sadness and obsessions overwhelm him. As this process is reminiscent of the rehabilitation stage of any addiction, recent studies have attempted to examine whether there are similarities between the way that the brain responds to a breakup and the manner that the brain of a dependent person functions.
These investigations showed that there is a neurophysiological base to the feelings of dependence of separated people, as there has been suggested significant similarities between the brain activity of a drug addict who craves for his dose and a separated person who craves for his former partner. According to Lucy Brown and colleagues, love can be considered as a kind of dependency, which might explain why attitudes and emotional reactions related to erotic rejection are rampant and why the separation can lead to extreme situations such as murder, suicide and clinical depression.
However, what is the practical usefulness of these surveys? Apart from scientific interest, they can help us to better understand the nature of separation and to develop more effective strategies to overcome it. It is important to have realistic expectations and to understand that the pain and the feeling of dependence is part of the process of separation. During the first few weeks it is possible to feel that we need our “dose” and maybe it will be best to avoid places, where we went with our partner, and common social groups that could make these feelings more intense. Do not rush yourself to feel better, but offer you some time. As with physical pain, the intensity of these feelings will decrease over time and the wound healing will begin. All that is needed is little patience.
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