The Dopamine Daze

When deep in the throes of love, in between the sleepless nights, heart palpitations and whirling butterflies, it is hard to imagine that such a high will ever fade.

“This one’s different,” you reassure yourself.  And maybe it is.

But for many, that intense high when diving headfirst into full-blown, consummated love eventually starts to come down, and soon, you find that your heart isn’t beating as fast as it used to.  The ecstatic feeling when together and the obsessive missing when apart starts to calm down. The pedestal that your new love once sparkled so brightly on suddenly starts to look a little dull.  The “I can’t take my hands off you” hunger turns into the “I’m really tired” snooze. Relationship doom? Or perhaps it’s  just the the natural cycle of the dopamine daze wearing off.

In the book, “Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget”, author Marianne Legato discusses a study that examined the brain patterns of people who had recently fallen in love. The study showed that a part of the brain that was activated has a lot of receptors of dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter associated with motivation, reward and pleasure.  The study shows that there is a great deal of overlap between the activity in the brain when in love and when doing drugs or smoking cigarettes.  “The toleration for sleeplessness, lack of appetite, feelings of exhilaration and focus – all these characterize the first phase of infatuation, but they’re also very similar to what happens when you do a line of cocaine.” Label it love or lust, but one thing’s for certain, it sure is addictive stuff.

Let’s not forget the chemical cocktail that’s also brewing in the background. First, presenting Phenyethylamine (PEA) – a natural amphetamine that elevates your mood and is strongly associated with pleasure (it’s one of the chemicals released when we eat chocolate).  In fact, it can make you feel so jumpy in the first weeks of romance that you can literally feel sick to your stomach – a sensation that’s easily mistaken for butterflies when you see your beau.

Next up – noradrenaline. A chemical typically associated with a state of emergency – it is responsible for your elevated blood pressure and heart rate, and an intense focus on your beloved. Your serotonin levels may also be reduced – often as low as someone with a compulsive disorder.

This chemically charged brain state can’t last forever. And it doesn’t. In fact, it lasts for the whole of eight months. Studies show that on average, in the first 6-8 months, the newly in “love” brain is in an altered state.  There is a cloud on the critical judgment part of your brain and you are literally blind to the shortcomings of your lover. The normal faculties that made you once think that his squeaky voice that was cute, or those clumsy quirks charming – are largely silenced when looking at your new lover. Those neural circuits simply don’t fire. But after this initial phase, the brain activity starts to normalize again, and you being to notice and get irritated by things that were once deemed pleasant.

In no way am I implying to avoid the sensations of lust and passion. I’m a big believer in love and healthy relationships. I doubt that a chemical reaction or any scientific explanation can really explain all the feelings and complex emotions felt in the beginning of courtship. A lot of it just doesn’t make sense, and that’s part of the beauty of love. However, I do want to point out that there is a high possibility that when the brain isn’t in it’s normal state; one may make decisions that they normally wouldn’t.

If we know that the mind is in an altered state in those beginning months, perhaps it is wise to hold off on the impromptu Las Vegas elopement. Perhaps it’s a good idea to take things slow, enjoy the dating process and not rush the flow. Everyone has their own timeline, some faster than others. But if you’ve really found the love of your life, does it hurt in the long run to wait a few months when your head is absolutely clear, before rushing into anything too serious?

Photo credit: Ani Bee

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