With Valentine’s Day approaching, most of us are forced to turn our attention to dating, relationships and love. But it’s also a day that plenty of people try to ignore, reject or celebrate only reluctantly. Lots of people question why there is an entire day dedicated to romantic love. Why not a day where we celebrate friendships with the same level of vim and vigor?
Then, there’s the question of whether this day is just to fuel our capitalistic society — flowers, chocolates, lingerie and teddy bears (to name a few common gifts) cost money and thus fuel the economy. While there’s no denying that it’s a holiday directly connected to consumerism, there’s certainly more to Valentine’s Day than just gifts. Love is one of the most important experiences of being human. We are fueled by seeking love, being in love, and hopefully also the work that goes into maintaining love. For many, loving and being loved is one of the most relevant aspects of life.
There are dozens upon dozens of reasons that can be referenced to explain why love matters so much, but one of the most important reasons relates to our brains.
In recent years, researchers conducted studies that take pictures of the brain’s activity while participants are shown photos of their spouses versus photos of friends, acquaintances and strangers. What the study found was that even after decades of being together, couples that reported still being in love had the brain activity to back it up. Researchers specifically detected elevated levels of dopamine, a chemical in our brains associated with pleasure and reward, only when the study participants were shown images of their spouses.
The brains did not produce increased dopamine when viewing photos of friends, acquaintances or strangers. This demonstrates one of the ways that romantic love has long-term value on a completely biological level. Romantic love quite literally causes our brains to function differently.
Love also leads to some uncomfortable experiences that can be traced to brain function. Have you ever been lovesick? When we experience the feeling of being lovesick due to either being freshly in love, perhaps dealing with unrequited love, or going through a breakup, our brains do something a little different than usual.
When we are in love, especially newly so, our brains typically produce increased levels of stress hormones. Have you ever found yourself unable to eat or struggling with the feeling that your heart is going to jump out of your chest? Not only can this feeling occur as the result of love lost, but it can also occur in response to being in love. These feelings relate to fear; specifically, fear of losing the love that you have acquired, and they can contribute to a crazy-in-love feeling.
Another shift in our brains due to being in love relates to a brain chemical called serotonin. If you or anyone you know has ever taken medication to help reduce anxiety, that medication generally acts to help your brain retain more serotonin. The natural chemical is sharply related to anxiety and in the earlier stages of being in love, we actually produce less of it, making the likelihood of experiencing anxiety greater.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship where you feel that you’re being controlled or that your partner is obsessing, it most certainly relates to serotonin. In short, love can cause us to act in all sorts of irrational ways. Love is powerful beyond measure and our brain activity quite literally proves this.
The good news is, long-term couples seem to have more regulated levels of stress hormones as well as serotonin while continuing to have heightened dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter that actually helps love to feel good.
Some quick tips for maintaining dopamine (and love): Eye contact is the most powerful way of maintaining deep connection. Think of a mother and infant gazing into one another’s eyes. This occurs to establish a bond between mother and child. Similarly, romantic connection is maintained with this very-valuable eye-gazing.
Next, you’ve probably heard you should maintain a healthy sex life in order to keep love alive. What you’ve heard is true. Longer-term relationships typically result in decreased frequency of sex, which is normal. Research is also varied on how much sex is enough sex, but I’ll just say that if you can’t remember the last time you had sex, it’s been too long. Oxytocin, most commonly known as the love drug, is produced during sex and is crucial to keeping romantic love alive.
Giving and receiving love is one of the greatest plights of all of our lives. It can be wonderful and terrible and everything in between. This year, whether you prefer to celebrate love or renounce it on the 14th — don’t forget that we all truly do need love.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and owner of Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).
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