Do Antidepressants Make a Person Fall Out of Love?
Helen Fisher, an evolutionary anthropologist at Rutgers University, has studied and researched romantic love. What she has found is that love is not an emotion but actually a function of the brain. Fisher found love to be a motivation system, a drive that is part of the reward system of the brain. It is a need pushing the lover to seek a specific mating partner. Depending on how the relationship is going, the brain links this drive to specific emotions. And while this is happening, the prefrontal cortex is working on categorizing the information, strategizing and monitoring the progress towards life’s greatest gift.
Fisher did a study looking at functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMR) which showed the activity going on in the brain of the people in the study. She had two groups of people: one group who was “madly in love” and one group who had just been “dumped”. Fisher found activity in the base of the brain in the reward system which is deep in the reptilian brain stem. This is the area that is associated with wanting, motivation, craving, and focus, characterized by increased dopamine and norepinephrine and activity in this part of the brain. In this area dopamine, a natural stimulant, is made and sprayed into the other areas of the brain. This is the same area that becomes active with a rush in cocaine use. This is the area where romantic love starts. Romantic love is a force towards a basic mating process. It is a need. Fisher states, “It is an addiction”. Fisher also saw a decrease in serotonin which is responsible for the obsessive thinking, which is what happens when we move into the area of romantic love. (Popova, 2010) You focus on the person. You crave them. You obsess about them. You need to see them more and more. Chemicals in your brain set this all in motion. Fisher looked at the people who were “dumped”. Fisher found activity in this same area. This would account for why people who are wanting to move on with their life can’t. They want to forget, but they can’t forget. That brain system for craving and wanting gets more active when you can’t get what you want. (TED, 2006)
Fisher also found brain activity in the area associated with deep attachment to another individual. Because of this, not only are you engulfed with feelings of romantic love, you are feeling deep attachment to this person, and your brain circuit for reward is working, giving you intense energy, motivation, and the willingness to risk it all.
Dr. Fisher presents three key components of love, each involving different brain systems all interconnected. These are lust, attraction and attachment.
Lust is driven by androgens and estrogens which is our craving for sexual gratification. When orgasm happens, it increased the oxytocin and vasopressin in the brain. These chemicals are associated with attachment. Fisher cautions not to have sex with someone you do not want to love as you may end up falling in love as the chemicals that are released into your system set this in motion.
Attraction (romantic or passionate love) is driven by high dopamine and norepinephrine levels and low serotonin and activated and operating in the reward system of the brain. This state is characterized by that euphoria you feel when you fall in love. Fisher finds in romantic love that person takes on “special meaning”. The person becomes the center of your universe. You focus on this person and what you love. You have intense energy. You feel intense elation and have deep despair when something goes wrong. You become sexually possessive. The main characteristic is to have a craving to be with them. You are also very motivated to get this person and become “obsessed” with this person. You think about the person day and night and you would “die” for this person. Love blinds you to anything outside the relationship.
Attachment is the final component of love and involves the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin (increased enormously in the brain after an orgasm). This gives you the sense of calm, peace, and stability one feels when with a long-term partner. (Popova, 2010)
Another area of the brain that gets activated is the prefrontal cortex where you calculate gains and losses. Often this includes obsessing on what went wrong and what could have been done differently. It is also the brain area that becomes active when you are willing to take huge risks for huge gains and huge losses.
Fisher and her colleague, psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson of the University of Virginia, explored how serotonin-enhancing antidepressants alter brain chemistry so as to blunt the emotions of a person, jeopardizing their ability to fall in love as well as maintaining a stable long-term partnership. Although the side effects of antidepressants are well known to include a decrease in libido and sexual performance, Fisher and Thomson state that they believe the drugs zap the craving for a mate and maybe even the brain’s ability to fall in love. (Los Angeles Times, 2007)
Fisher reminds people that when you raise levels of serotonin (which is what happens when you take antidepressants), you suppress the dopamine circuit. Dopamine is associated with romantic love. If you suppress the dopamine circuit, you diminish the sex drive and stop orgasms from happening. This stops the flood of drugs (hormones oxytocin and vasopressin) associated with attachment.
Over 100 million prescriptions of antidepressants are written in a year. Fisher is not recommending that patients who are seriously clinically depressed refrain from taking serotonin-enhancing depressants. But she does want us to use caution and to consider the other biological mechanisms that may be impacted when on antidepressants. If you have been on antidepressants for the long-term (perhaps years), you may want to have a conversation with your doctor to consider other options.
Los Angeles Times. (2007, July 30). Helen Fisher Antidepressants. Retrieved September 24, 2011, from articles.latimes.com.
Popova, M. (2010, June 11). Brain pickings. Retrieved September 23, 2011 from www.brainpickings.org.
TED (Director). (2006). Helen Fisher tells us why we love and cheat. [Motion Picture].
Tags: antidepressant may affect your love life, Antidepressants and being in love
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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