What Happens To Your Brain During A Friend Breakup

Although we already know that breaking up with a romantic partner is hard to do, can the same be said for breaking up with a friend? I mean, breaking up is breaking up and a loss is a loss, so it seems that how we’re affected, both physically and mentally, by a friend breakup shouldn’t differ all that much. Especially since, in many ways, a friend breakup can be similar to a romantic breakup in how it plays out.

"No one tells you that breaking up with a friend is so difficult," Dating Coach Francesca Hogi tells Bustle. "No one even tells you that you're allowed to break up with a friend — we are definitely told from a young age that being a good person means being a loyal friend, no matter what."

But since that's the case, the deep pain that comes with breaking up with a friend is often overshadowed by romantic breakups. And it shouldn't be.

“I think one major part of this is loss,” Licensed Psychologist and Founder of Azimuth Psychological, Janna Koretz, Psy.D, tells Bustle. “In many ways the process of grief for the breakup of a friend is the same as when you break up with a romantic partner. If feels personal, you miss them, you're embarrassed, or sometimes even confused or angry. Sometimes people feel they need to make life adjustments to deal with the breakup, such as changing paths in the hallway or not attending parties with mutual friends. You may also lose other friends, who become on ‘their side’. And we also miss their companionship. So it is very much like breaking up with a romantic partner. Both in terms of effects and time taken to move on.”

While studies on brain activity in regards to friend breakups are not easy to come by, because we do tend to put so much emphasis on breakups of the romantic nature, it’s safe to assume that if from an emotional and mental perspective we’re being affected so similarly by the loss, so here’s what happens to your brain when you breakup with a friend.

1. Your Brain Experiences Withdrawal

While the withdrawal that comes with a friend breakup may not be as intense as the withdrawal of a romantic breakup, it still exists. Studies have found that when we fall in love, the feeling, at least as far as the brain is concerned, is on par with taking cocaine. Even when that exciting part of the relationship ends and moves onto attachment, something that people absolutely experience with friends, when that person is taken away withdrawal follows. Honestly, whenever anything is taken away from us, we’re likely to feel withdrawal.

2. Your Brain Makes You Feel Guilty

"Friend and romantic breakups are similar in ways — you often experience anger, sadness, dismay, possibly relief — in both," Hogi tells Bustle. "These are all natural stages of mourning a relationship's end. When a friendship ends, there is an added layer of guilt. You usually question your loyalty and your character when you break up with a friend more so than when you break up with a romantic partner."

3. Your Brain Can Cause You To Physically Hurt

A 2010 study by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and associates found that the loss of someone important can cause physical pain. The reason for this is because the emotional pain, the one that Koretz mentions, and the physical pain share the same pathway to the brain.

"Friendship breakups are not usually acknowledged as being traumatic or painful so you might not have a healthy outlet to discuss the breakup or get closure," explains Hogi. "If you're sad because you and your girlfriend or boyfriend broke up, people get it. If you're sad over losing a close friend, some people don't see why it's such a big deal or might assume you've had a fight but will reconcile eventually."

So, yes, that ache you feel when a romantic relationship or friendship comes to an end is very much real.

4. Your Brain Throws Off Your Whole Body

When we experience any type of stress, our brain releases the stress hormone cortisol as a means to let your body know that you’re pretty much emotionally and mentally at a loss. Cortisol can mess up our digestive system, force us to toss and turn all night, and even strip us of our smarts — temporarily, of course. It just kind of goes nuts and makes our body go nuts, too.

5. Your Brain Can Also Go Nuts

Well, you have to figure if cortisol is being released into our body, making us physically a disaster, then naturally it’s having its way with our brain, too. I mean, it’s already stripped up of our ability to think critically, especially if you’re the one who was dumped in the friendship. You might act desperately or try to fix things in ways that you may not have tried to fix things in the past, because you’re so upset about the breakup that all logic has gone out the window, as neuroscientist and professor Dr. Lucy Brown explains in Bustle’s video series Love, Factually. "That's really at a non-verbal level of the brain. No wonder it's so hard to control,” says Dr. Brown.


"People change in unpredictable ways. Just as in any relationship, sometimes the relationship dynamic changes to be really harmful," says Hogi. "Other times you change enough to see that it was always harmful. Sometimes you just don't have enough common ground in your approach to life or your friendship to make the friendship gratifying or healthy. However you feel about your friendship ending, it's important to honor those feelings and process them and know that with time, it does get better."

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