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The Real Secret is simple, sensible, scientifically supported self help
by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


Love Is The Drug - or a Form of Madness

A friend of mine is in love. She’s in love with a man who loves her, but who also has a wife and children. When she sees him, she’s in seventh heaven; when she can’t see him, especially for any length of time, it feels like a kind of hell. In between the two she thinks of him obsessively and longs for texts, emails or phone calls that relieve the pain. She says they make each other happy, but with the situation as it is she wishes desperately she wasn’t in love with him. The only solution she can see would be for her to fall in love with someone else (more available, perhaps); despite the suffering, she won't be taking our advice on how to end a relationship.

Another friend of mine is not in love. She has had a number of relationships in recent years, the latest of which she ended a few months ago. She has suffered from depression before and feels she is slipping into depression again. She thinks that in the past she might have unconsciously used the emotional high of falling in love to repeatedly ward off depression. Despite this insight, and that she knows he didn’t and couldn’t make her happy, my friend is tempted to reconnect with her ex to get another hit.

Both these women are intelligent and self aware, but both find it hard to overcome the intense feelings that “being in love” produces; both talk in terms of “addiction”, “obsession”, “highs”, “withdrawal symptoms”… the language of drug abuse and madness. The neuroscience of love suggests this is completely appropriate.

Research suggests that there are three forms of love for a partner (or potential partner): lust, romantic love and attachment. The three different categories involve different brain systems: lust (craving sexual gratification) is driven by androgens and estrogens such as testosterone; romantic love (attraction), which is characterised by euphoria, mood swings, focused attention, obsessive thinking and intense craving for the loved one, is driven by high levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, and low serotonin levels; while attachment (peaceful, long term relationship) is driven by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin.

Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of University College, London, originally located the areas of the brain activated by romantic love by looking at brain scans of students who said they were madly in love and analysing their patterns of brain activity. It appeared that a relatively small area of the human brain is active in romantic love, compared with that involved in ordinary friendship; and the brain areas active in love are different from the areas activated in other emotional states, such as fear and anger. Parts of the brain involved in being “in love” include the one responsible for gut feelings and those which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people in love don’t look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but rather like those of people snorting coke.

Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University, in Montreal, says the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates. A mix of chemical changes occurs, including increases in the levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids (the body's natural equivalent of heroin). Love, it seems, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. We are literally addicted to love.

The description of being “madly in love” isn’t far off the truth either. Some researchers suggest this mental state might share neurochemical characteristics with the manic phase of manic depression. Dr Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, and author of the book Why We Love, suggests that the obsessive thought patterns and actual behavioural patterns of those in love — such as attempting to evoke reciprocal responses in one's loved one — resemble obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Dr Fisher says that love is not so much an emotion as a drive; a motivation system and part of the brain’s reward system. It is a need which compels us to seek a specific mating partner and links the drive to all kinds of distinct emotions according to how well or badly the relationship is going. The emotions are powerful whether positive or negative: one study shows that when a female prairie vole mates, there is a 50% increase in the “feel good” hormone, dopamine, in the reward centre of her brain; another that 40% of people who had been dumped in the past eight weeks experienced clinical depression, and 12% severe depression.

Lust, romantic love and attachment are connected, not just in body and mind but in brain circuitry. Dr Fisher tells people not to have sex with people they don’t want to fall in love with, because often that is the result. The testosterone of lust can activate the neurotransmitters of love, while an orgasm can raise the attachment hormones which promote long term affection and monogamy. She believes romantic love is a stronger craving than sex, but that when oxytocin and vasopressin kick in (around 18 months later), they may interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, so making the passionate “in love” feelings start to fade.

It is also around this time, especially if the attachment hormones haven’t established themselves, that reality can kick in and lovers start to be released from their addiction. People realise that the objects of their adoration are not god-like, that their relationship may be causing them more pain than pleasure, or that they are simply bored. Relationships often fall apart after about two years, sometimes because one member starts (perhaps unconsciously) to crave the high of a new addiction.

This is a pattern my second friend recognised in herself, but it seems we all embed patterns of attraction and relationship early, starting with our very first love. Interestingly, both my friends’ relationships are/were with early boyfriends they have reconnected with some twenty years later.

Very few experiences in our lives are as intense and overwhelming as our first love, which most often takes place in our teenage years. Although it may evaporate fast, teenage first love is more intense than love in adulthood because of our high energy levels and flooding hormones. The memories we retain are deep and strong – and in women particularly, the “in love” state causes increased activity in brain regions associated with memory recall. Websites like Friends Reunited were publicly blamed for breaking up marriages as people rekindled the thrill of first love after contacting old lovers.

So, if the state of “being in love” is neurologically similar to taking drugs and mental illness, could we treat it as we do addiction or OCD? Researchers think there is a short and finite period between lust turning to romantic love when we could consciously choose not to fall, but we would have to be very self aware and very strong and use strategies akin to cognitive behavioural therapy. Anti-depressants which raise serotonin levels might alleviate the pain of break up, or reduce the desire for or ability to fall in love.

In general, though, the best defence against the madness and/or addiction of love is to maintain your personal levels of emotional wellbeing. Having high levels of self-esteem and resilience makes you more likely to attract a similarly well-balanced and positive partner with whom you can form a mutually supportive and enduring relationship, and less likely to become obssessed with or adicted to someone who causes you pain. (See our post on The Laws of Attraction.)

The twelve steps of The Real Secret can help you, or a young person making early relationships, to become grounded in a positive outlook and self-confidence, and has advice on how to achieve Richer Relationships. It is available in paperback and kindle on and .

Posted by Lucy

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