Butterflies and love: The physiological changes in the body when you fall in love are remarkably similar to those that occur when you are experiencing something stressful. This is because, in many ways, the love response is identical to the stress response. But what exactly is happening when you first lock eyes with that beautiful stranger?
Head over heels
In 1997, an American study headed by psychologist Arthur Aron concluded that people can feel legitimately lovestruck in as little as ninety seconds. The study asserted that 55% of the development of this attraction is down to the body language of the potential partner: the brain can pick up on extremely nuanced behaviours that signal mutual attraction. 38% is down to the change in tone and frequency of the person’s voice. Only 7% of the development of this love-like feeling is based on what the person is actually saying.
What happens after this initial, immediate stage? The neurotransmitter dopamine instigates the release of the sex hormone testosterone, which in turn leads to increased libido and sexual desire. This first stage is not necessarily so much love as it is lust – and it is where we first see the abovementioned stress response take hold. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol surge around the body, playing havoc; the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and PEA (phenylethylamine) lead to the brain becoming increasingly focused on the individual in question. Norepinephrine is a stimulant, which explains why falling in love can occur concomitantly with increased alertness and disrupted sleep. Reduced activity in the frontal and prefrontal cortices, themselves ordinarily associated with executive decision-making functions such as analysis and judgement, leads to the classic sense of dreaminess and hopeless romance.
Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has shown that this neurochemical hubbub is actually akin to drug addiction; in much the same way, a newly-besotted individual will crave their beloved. Their increased dopamine level causes feelings of euphoria and a surge of desire when the person is not around. At the same time, the level of serotonin in the brain drops dramatically. Serotonin regulates mood and keeps us level-headed – so when serotonin goes, the positive emotions we experience skyrocket, uninhibited. In fact, a 1999 American study headed by Donatella Marazziti showed that serotonin can drop to the same level as that of people who suffer from OCD – meaning that enamoured people are literally obsessed with their lover.
Maintaining the spark
As we all know, the mania of that initial hit from Cupid’s arrow does not last forever – otherwise, the world would be roamed by hordes of doe-eyed zombies, clutching heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and service-station flowers. The initial physiological changes begin to mellow out – but both mind and body have, nevertheless, been altered.
After the honeymoon period of between six and twelve months, the hormonal reactions to seeing one’s partner begin to level off. The anticipation of seeing them ceases to initiate a stress response. So what it is that keeps us in love?
Step up, oxytocin.
Oxytocin is an extremely powerful hormone – a love drug, a romantic high, ‘the cuddle hormone’. Oxytocin is released when partners engage in physical contact, particularly during orgasm. Its release deepens and strengthens feelings of attachment and, over time, leads to a sense of tranquillity, security, contentment in the relationship. The couple feel safe and experience a much more profound, binding sense of togetherness. The spark has not been extinguished – the incandescence is just a little steadier. Couples may still report feeling madly in love with each other, still experience that same high when are together.
Conversely, extended time apart may once again simulate drug addiction – only this time in the sense of withdrawal. The craving for one’s partner is not satisfied, and this can lead to anxiety and even depression. It also transpires, amazingly, that it is possible to die from a broken heart – literally. Stress-induced cardiomyopathy can be induced by a surge of stress hormones during emotionally-traumatic events, such as a death or divorce – or even a bad breakup.
Happy hearts, healthy hearts
There is boundless evidence showing that people in love do, on average, experience better health overall. A 2010 Stanford University School of Medicine study showed that married people in their forties display fewer risk factors for premature death, and have overall stronger hearts. Intense feelings of love can even activate the same areas of the brain as do painkillers. A 2015 American study even showed that long-term love can increase creativity: prolonged romance can lead to a focus on the long-term, in turn leading to a more holistic approach to passions and projects.
The human brain is often cited as the most mysterious object in the universe, and scientists know relatively little about its inner workings. At Maclynn (formerly Vida), this doesn’t worry us: we understand relationships. We provide clients with a unique approach, combining psychological principles and assessments with character-driven profiling, creating a personable framework in an increasingly impersonal world. Let us find you that special someone. Let us give you back your butterflies.