The Science of Breaking Up

Photo by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr

What happens to your body when you break up with someone you love? Liz Waid and Luke Haley look at the physical effects of a break-up.

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Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2 

And I’m Luke Haley. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 3 

“So this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and everything in your body felt deeply empty and painful.”

Voice 1 

The writer Gabriel García Márquez wrote these words. He was talking about a love relationship that ended. It created strong physical feelings. When a relationship ends, many people feel like a part of themselves is broken too. They may even feel physical pain in their bodies. It is common to feel “heart sick” or “heart broken” at the end of a relationship.

Voice 2 

One English saying for ending a loving relationship is to “break up”. When two people break up, the relationship is over. Scientists have studied why we feel physical heartbreak when relationships break up. They have shown how breaking up affects a person’s mind, emotions and even her or his body. Today’s Spotlight is on the science of breaking up.

Voice 1 

Researchers at Colombia University did a scientific study with people who had just broken up. People looked at pictures of the person they had just ended a relationship with. Scientists then looked at the reaction of their brains. They found that looking at the picture affected the part of the brain that feels physical pain.

Voice 2 

The result of breaking up a relationship feels like physical pain in the body. This painful feeling is very common. Many people talk and write about it. Amy Winehouse was a popular singer. She wrote a song about breaking up with her boyfriend. Here are some parts of the words to that song. They talk about her physical reaction to her boyfriend leaving:

Voice 4 

“He walks away, the sun goes down,
My tears dry on their own.

We could never have had it all,
We had to hit a wall,
So this is unavoidable withdrawal.”

Voice 1 

Winehouse talks about feeling ‘withdrawal’ from her relationship. Withdrawal is a physical reaction to a change in behaviour. When people do something regularly they can become addicted to it. This is especially the case with substances like illegal drugs or alcohol. When people stop these behaviours it is painful. Their body wants to have more of the substance.

Voice 2 

Like Winehouse, many people feel this way when they end a relationship. Scientists at StoneyBrook University did a study about rejection in love. They compared the brains of two groups of people. The first group was people addicted to illegal drugs. The second group was people who had just broken up. They found that the brains were affected in a similar way. Scientifically, a romantic relationship is like an addiction for your brain!

Voice 1 

When we are around people we love, we are happy. Our bodies create hormones and other substances that make us feel good. When this relationship is no longer there, the substances that make us feel happy also go away. Many people find they cannot sleep well or they gain unhealthy weight after a breakup. They may feel like they cannot even think very well.

Voice 2 

Scientists have found that these are common results of having too much of the hormone cortisol. This substance is released when people feel stress. This emotional pressure can be caused by worry, emotional hurt or fear of danger. The end of a relationship is stressful. In this situation the body makes more cortisol. And the cortisol makes it more difficult for people to sleep, eat and think well.

Voice 1 

The body and brain must make many changes when a relationship ends. People who are in a relationship usually spend a lot of time together. They have daily habits that involve each other. Their bodies share similar movements of sleep, appetite, body temperature and heart rate. After breaking up, these all change. Dr. Sbarra at the University of Arizona looked at physical changes when relationships end. He found that these changes often make people’s bodies feel sick.

Voice 2 

The end of a relationship also changes personal identity. Grace Larson is an expert in human relationships at NorthWestern University. The news organization NPR talked to Larson about how a breakup can affect the way a person sees him or herself. Larson explains:

Voice 5 

“When a relationship ends, that changes your sense of who you are in many ways. You may think, 'Who am I, now that I am not that person’s girlfriend?”

Voice 1 

So what can people do when they lose this feeling of identity? What can they do when they feel heart sick after a break up? Larson did a scientific study that gives some ideas about how to heal from heart break. She studied people who had just broken up. They all answered questions about how they felt. Then, half of the people talked to the scientists about how they were feeling. They did this regularly. After some time, everyone answered the questions about how they felt again. Larson found that the people who had talked about their relationships and break ups felt better. They recovered from their breakups faster because they had shared their feelings. She says:

Voice 5 

“I think that it is possible that coming into the laboratory and answering these questions reminded them of their new identity as single people"

Voice 2 

Talking about their feelings also helped people form a new sense of identity. They thought and talked about who they were without their relationship to another person. Some people may avoid talking about painful feelings. But Larson’s study shows that talking helps heal the hurt. Some people may also avoid things that make them remember the person they broke up with. Particular places, songs or objects bring back memories. If these memories are connected to a break up, they can be painful. But making new memories of these things can help people to feel better.

Voice 1 

Science teaches us one very important thing about heartbreak. It is expressed in this saying from the writer James Baldwin:

Voice 6 

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are the first in the history of the world, but then you read.”

Voice 2 

If you are feeling pain at the end of a relationship, you are not alone! Reading about other people’s experiences, or talking about them, can be encouraging. And the physical and emotional pain of heart break does not last forever. It may take some time, but broken hearts can heal.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Rena Dam. The producer was Bruce Gulland. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, ‘The Science of Breaking Up’.

Voice 2 

Tell us what you think about today’s program. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at And find us on Facebook - just search for Spotlight Radio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.


What is the best way to recover after breaking up with someone you love?


Avatar Spotlight
said on May 11, 2015

After reading this nice article, we understand better emotions in our body
when we break up in order to some frienships.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 06, 2016

I suppose probably each of us had once experienced the effects of a break-up which is the very well known so called ‘‘heart sick’‘.
People mostly believe their suffering from ending relationship is permanent, they are not able to realize that after time this emotional pain will fade gradually because it cannot last forever!
In my opinion, the best way to recover after breaking up is sharing this ‘‘heart illness’’ talking about and also to try rather thinking of future than sorrow after the past.
Undoubtedly, in some life stages we may meet disappointment or sadness but we should learn properly how to heal our psychical just as physical injury with courage and patience too. At all events we have to fight the attack of possible depression or stress as consequences of ending relationship with person who we love.
Thanks for excellent program!

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 06, 2016

This is an exciting article !
I haven’n ever broken up with somebody, so I can’t understand the feeling.
Thanks for giving me experiences.
” I really become addicted to Spotlight”

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 16, 2016

All people who fall in love with another people are usually feel all emotions in love. No one can avoid the bad feelings when the love breaks up. Good feelings or bad ones are the parts of love. How should we do to recover ourselves after breaking up with someone we love? I think we should take part in social activities, go outside with friends or play a sport we like. We should spend more free time not to think about what happend in the past. The more we think about it, the more our pain we have to stand. We should avoid listening songs or going some places reminding us of old memories. We have to try to think positively, dont let us down because we’re easily addicted to illegal drugs or alcohol. Finally, time is the best way to heal the wound in our hearts.

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 24, 2016

I am with you guys with these feelings. It is really a hard time for me to get through these breaking up things. But i did something to over it like more busy but actually you didn’t, watching movie with friends, laughing more, riding a bike, eating fruits…..and more stupid things i did when i ended a relationship with person i loved so much.

Avatar Spotlight
said on March 18, 2016

Yeah! breaking up is harmful. when someone breaks up your heart and this succed when you are in love a lot.
The world comes over you, and you don’t know what can do, but is good advice that is better to share and talk with someone about it.


Avatar Spotlight
said on January 12, 2017

We die away in life every day. Difficulty and challenge make us die away. We may have difficulty, challenge and suffering. Difficulty, challenge and suffering may make our hearts break up. Our lives have joy and sadness. Seeing everyone happy, we are happy. We share everyone’s sadness. We live a meaning life. We are willing to die away in life every day. We die away with the not good things. We live the new life. We live the new life with the beautiful good things.

Avatar Spotlight
said on October 17, 2018

When i was a student, i addicted game after i broke up with my old friend. Now that is a good memory.