Welcome to Ask Doctor Zac, a weekly column from news.com.au. This week Dr Zac Turner reveals a scientific way to heal a broken heart.
Question: Hi Dr Zac, my girlfriend and I made plans to escape Covid lockdowns and settle down in a new city together. We decided on Darwin, and I went first without her to start my new job. Only, after a few weeks she rang me to let me know she won't be coming and that she doesn't want to be with me any more.
I'm heartbroken. If I'm not at work, I'm in bed. The only food I eat is fast food that's delivered to my apartment. I've fallen into a depression and I'm starting to become anxious.
Is there such a thing as a broken heart, and can it be cured by a doctor? – Anon, Darwin
Answer: I'm sorry to hear you aren't feeling so flash-hot right now, but trust me, time heals all wounds. Have a glass of water, spend 30 minutes outside (leave your phone behind) and take 10 deep breaths. You will be okay.
Patients often come to me after breakups asking if there is a cure for heartbreak. I always tell them the same thing. The reason for their distress is because they are currently detoxing from one of the most potent drugs there is: Love.
Love is a drug, and explaining the brain chemistry behind it may make you feel better. There are also a few Dr Zac tips and tricks for you to get back on track.
We've all felt the numbing sensation of falling for someone, the tight ball of butterflies in our stomach, the almost drunk-like feeling as you get to know this new person. All these feelings can be explained by the cocktail of chemicals mixed in our brains as we fall in love.
A new relationship boosts our levels of oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone". Think of this like Amortentia, the powerful love potion in Harry Potter. This chemical makes you irresistibly attracted to the other person, which is why the start of a relationship is the most intense.
Dopamine is mixed into the cocktail, which is the pleasure and reward chemical. A dash of serotonin is added which regulates mood and is associated with happiness.
Love (oxytocin) + Pleasure (dopamine) + Happiness (serotonin) = a pretty powerful neurological love potion and now throw into the mix all the endorphins from sex and BAM! You've got a powerful cocktail. If only I could make that into a product, I'd be a rich man.
The best way to describe the feeling of a breakup is that you have been cut off from this cocktail and have begun to feel withdrawals. The supply of these neurotransmitters is halted and the deficit makes us feel anxious, depressed and isolated. To add salt to the wounds, the brain begins to release stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.
Rather than saying your heart is broken, it is in fact the neurons in your brain that break.
Breakups can be difficult to deal with, especially because they can stir up feelings of rejection, alter your daily routine and make you feel generally upset. The reaction can be worse if it's unexpected, and sometimes your body may register it as an emergency and go into "fight-or-flight" mode.
An unexpected breakup will cause your body to release hormones that are meant to prepare your body to stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. A common symptom is a rapid heartbeat. Your muscles will tense, you'll lose your appetite and you'll most likely have trouble falling asleep. You'll even find it harder to concentrate on anything. Sound familiar?
My first recommendation is to find alternative ways to supply your brain with the chemicals it is craving. This can be spending time with close friends, and remember a video call is a good motivator as you're forced to get out of bed. Extra points if you have a hot and cold shower to really get the blood circulating.
Opening the blinds for some sunlight and turning on the lights stimulate the pineal gland to stimulate more serotonin and melatonin releasing and is a sure-fire way to feeling and sleeping better.
Rather than hugging your dog non-stop, the key is to find a holistic approach to maintaining your neurological balance. Focus on diet, exercise and regular sleep. These three things, when done in unison and consistently, will make you feel exponentially better.
Steer clear of social media entirely for the first few weeks, or at the very least delete your ex from Facebook and Instagram. You don't need to see their face any more! Research has shown that a heartbroken brain is similar to one going through cocaine withdrawal. More contact makes the cravings stronger. You don't need to see what your ex is up to on Instagram – you need to stop caring about them and care about yourself.
And lastly, don't drink copious amounts of alcohol. It is a depressant that will worsen your mood.
Be gentle with yourself, and try to focus on good vibes only from here on out. Remember that time heals all, and eventually you will love your new life and new city. And remember – you're not in lockdown, and Darwin is basically summer every day – you're the lucky one! Love is such an important part of what makes us human and whether it is yourself, your partner, your city, your family, your dog or even your "love fern", always cherish that we are united in this ability.
• Dr Zac Turner has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney. He is both a medical practitioner and a co-owner of telehealth service, Concierge Doctors, and is also a qualified and experienced biomedical scientist.