The Chemicals Behind Falling in Love

Love is a many splendored thing…or so people fancy it to be. But while the majority of those enamored folks may very well be all-out twitterpated – scientifically speaking, it’s not always about hearts and flowers.

It turns out, there’s actually more science than serendipity to your own love story than you’d imagine, and researchers are saying it’s really about perpetuating the human race.  So before you regale your friends yet again with that endearing tale of you and your amour’s cute-meet, consider all the chemicals that came into play.

So how does your brain actually work when you’re in love? Falling in love causes our body to release a rush of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions.

These chemicals include dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. The dopamine creates feelings of euphoria, a feeling of intense excitement and happiness. The adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for increased heart rate, feelings of restlessness and overall preoccupation with the object of your desire.

There are three phases of love, which include lust, attraction and attachment.

The Three Phases of Falling In Love

Lust

Lust is a hormone-driven phase where we experience physical desire. The early stages can be a little hazardous. When we are falling in love we are blissful, elated, and–sometimes–reckless. We tend to idealize our partner and see only things that we want to see in the early stages, whereas outsiders may have a clearer perspective.

Attraction

MRI scans indicate that during the attraction phase, there is a boost in blood flow to the pleasure center of the brain. This causes that overpowering preoccupation with our significant other. This also happens to be the same part of the brain implicated in obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

Love lowers our serotonin levels. Besides high dopamine and norepinephrine levels, low serotonin is what drives the attraction phase.  Researchers believe that this may have something to do with why we become so intensely focused on our partners in the beginning of our relationships. We are quite literally obsessed to some degree.

Interestingly, the same low serotonin is a common characteristic in people with obsessive compulsive disorder. To expand on this concept, it’s been said by some researchers that a few serotonin-boosting antidepressants often taken to combat OCD symptoms may unintentionally inhibit the love bonding process by blunting feelings of romance and causing sexual dysfunction.

Attachment

The two major hormones believed to be involved in the attachment process of falling in love are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin, known as the “cuddle hormone”, is most notably released during orgasms childbirth and breastfeeding. It appears to help strengthen the bonds between sexual partners and, in the latter case, mother and child. Vasopressin works with the kidneys to control thirst and bonding. This has been researched alongside the prairie vole which, in its natural state, is a monogamous animal. However, when the male prairie vole was exposed to a drug that suppressed production and effects of vasopressin, the male’s bond with their significant other was quickly diminished and their affection was no longer apparent.

In humans, both vasopressin and oxytocin create a sense of trust and security that fosters a lasting relationship.

How Do People With Mental Illness React To “Love” Chemicals?

The so-called “love drug”, oxytocin, is now available pharmaceutically, and some psychiatrists have pushed for oxytocin to be used as a treatment for autism and other conditions involving social anxiety. However, it doesn’t always have the expected effect. Oxytocin isn’t for everyone and it isn’t a cure-all for mental health conditions like some pharmaceutical companies are hyping it up to be.

Some small scale studies have shown preliminary evidence the hormone via nasal spray enables some people with social anxiety disorder to have an easier time in social situations. They’ve also cited that it helps some of those with mild autism better recognize social cues.

Those with borderline personality disorder do not always react the same way to oxytocin exposure as those without the disorder.  In fact, when exposed to oxytocin, they may experience symptoms of anxiety, suspicion, and even fear.

In a 2011 study by psychologist Jennifer Bartz and her colleagues at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, 14 subjects diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and 13 whom were deemed clinically normal were asked to inhale either a dose of oxytocin or a placebo, and then play a game of trust in cooperation with another person. For test subjects who were clinically normal, oxytocin acted to amplify feelings of trust and companionship, while the normal placebos thought the best of their partners and also worked together. For subjects with borderline personality disorder, the opposite was true. Those under the influence of oxytocin became significantly more suspicious of their partners, quitting the game straight away.

Another study, also by Bartz, found that men who had stable childhood relationships with their mothers recalled them as such when they were given doses of oxytocin compared with how they remembered the relationships without the oxytocin. In contrast, men who were insecure in their current relationships remembered their childhood relationship with their mothers as less doting when exposed to oxytocin.  Of course, the hormone could simply be helping men remember their childhoods more accurately. And for those with a predilection to a variety of antisocial behaviors, such as in personality disorders, like borderline personality disorder; oxytocin may amplify  the symptoms. If you tend to trust others, oxytocin will make you trust them more. Conversely, if you harbor social anxiety and suspicion, oxytocin may amplify those feelings instead.

While it may not be as fun as believing it’s all part of some magical, once-in-a-lifetime fairy tale, it may be helpful to know what factors play into the complicated progress of love and bonding, especially if any aspect of mental illness or social anxiety is involved.

References

Azar, Beth.  “Oxytocin’s other side.”  American Psychological Association: Science Watch.  Mar 2011, Vol 42, No. 3 Print ver: pg 40, Accessed 9, Feb. 2017. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/03/oxytocin.aspx

Brüne, M. “On the role of oxytocin in borderline personality disorder.” PubMed. Sep 2016 ;55(3):287-304. Epub 2015 Nov 30.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26616386

Herpertz, Sabine, M.D., Betsch, Katja, M. D. “A New Perspective on the Pathophysiology of Borderline Personality Disorder: A Model of the Role of Oxytocin.”  The American Journal of Psychiatry.  September 01, 2015.  Accessed 9 Feb. 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.15020216

Insel, T R,  Shapiro, L E .  “Oxytocin receptor distribution reflects social organization in monogamous and polygamous voles.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 1992 89 (13) 5981-5985, 1 Jul 1992, Accessed 2 Feb. 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/89/13/5981.short

Wolchover, Natalie.  “Oxytocin: The Chemical of Love…or Suspicion.”  Live Science.  1 Feb. 2011, Accessed 8 Feb. 2017. http://www.livescience.com/32978-oxytocin-chemical-of-love-or-suspicion.html

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