July 8, 2010— -- You might as well face it. According to a new study, you really can be addicted to love.
From looking at the brain scans of the broken-hearted, researchers found that recovering from a break-up is like a kicking an addiction to a drug.
"Romantic love is an addiction," said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of the study. "My guess is that our modern addictions -- nicotine, drugs, sex, gambling -- are simply hijacking this ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago, that evolved for romantic love. ... The brain system evolved to focus your energy on an individual and start the mating process."
Fisher, who has long examined the evolutionary underpinnings of love, sex and relationships, said that she previously studied the happily-in-love. But she said this recent study on the just-jilted and dejected is the most important one she'll ever do.
"Nobody gets out of love alive," Fisher said. "You turn into a menace or a pest when you've been rejected. That's when people stalk or commit suicide. ... There's a very powerful brain system that has a dramatic effect on your entire life."
"Our poets, our songs, our novels, our sitcoms, our operas, our plays, have been discussing it forever and now we can confirm it with what we found in the brain," she said.
To test her love-as-an-addiction hypothesis, Fisher recruited 15 college-age, heterosexual men and women still raw and reeling from a recent break-up. On average, the participants had been rejected about two months prior to the study and said they were still in love.
As the participants looked at images of their ex lovers, the researchers looked at images of the participants' brains.
The parts of the brain that lit up were the same ones associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction, physical pain and distress and attachment, Fisher said.
"You just crave this person. You're willing to do crazy things, stupid things," she said. Just as a person would while fighting a drug addiction, she said, a lovelorn person obsesses, craves and distorts reality.
Study Could Help Love Addicts
And the implications for treatment could be profound.
"I think this helps in what to do about it. If it really is an addiction, you have to treat it as an addiction," she said. For example, when it comes to trying to stay friends for exchange letters and e-mails, she asid just say no.
"It's like trying to give up cigarettes and having one every afternoon. It's just not going to happen," she said.
While psychologists have long helped clients cope with obsessions with love and relationships, some say the backing of science could further help those seeking treatment for the condition.
"As soon as there's a label, that's a big reason people feel better, they blame themselves less," said Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a New York psychologist and author of "The Complete Idiots Guide to Dating." "As soon as you can say this is a chemical reaction in the brain, then they're less likely to stay in bed longer, to berate themselves, to put the cover over ... because there is an explanation."
Still, she said, there are also potential downsides.
"The danger I think is that people don't take responsibility," she said. "Let me blame the chemical in my brain and not take responsibility for the fact that I can't cope ... and take responsibility by examining your own participation and defining what your choices are."
The identification of a physical cause could also mean that people seek physical answers, she said, for example, in the form of pop-able pills.
"So it could be used very effectively or it could be abused," she said. "But in general, for most people it can be very helpful because they can say, 'I have this problem. I can get over it. I know it will pass."
Susan Peabody, love addiction counselor, author of "Addiction to Love" and co-founder of Love Addicts Anonymous, said Fisher's study is among the most groundbreaking studies on the chemistry of love.
Long known to experts in the self-help field, love produces mind-altering chemicals to which we can become addicted.
"This study legitimizes what we already know," she said. "How does this help us love addicts? For one, it reduces the shame we have for being a love addict because it makes love addiction a legitimate form of mental illness like all addictions."
Love Heals All Wounds, Even Science Says So
While the information doesn't yet make love addiction more treatable, she said it moves the field closer to medical treatment.
In the meantime, Fisher said her study gives scientific support to one more time-tested adage: as time goes on, the pain fades away.
"Time does heal," she said, explaining that as more time passed, activity in the parts of the brain associated with attachment and addiction decreased. "People have always said time heals and we've proven it."