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Love and Cocaine: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve ever watched an episode of Dateline – or basically any show on the ID Network – you’re familiar with some of the crazy things people do for love. We often find ourselves asking, “What’s wrong with these people?” Then you think of that one time (okay, maybe twice) you acted like a complete lunatic over a romantic obsession…and you suddenly realize you’re not that different.

Scary, huh?

Love is…a Drug?

When dealing with matters of the heart, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. Symptoms like erratic behavior, increased heart-rate, loss of sleep, and impaired judgment are experienced when falling in – and out – of love. And, crazy as it may sound, these are the same symptoms people experience when high on cocaine.

According to Lucy Brown, a clinical neurology and brain anatomy specialist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, we can safely categorize love as an addiction alongside drugs, sex and gambling.

Love produces the same surge of dopamine that cocaine generates, causing extreme euphoria and a crash soon thereafter. It’s what Diana Ross refers to as “the sweetest hangover.” But like all hangovers, how much you suffer depends on how hard you indulge the night before. Believe it or not, emotional hangovers can be far more painful than the ones caused by alcohol or drugs, lasting for weeks or even months.

Love produces the same surge of dopamine that cocaine generates, causing extreme euphoria and a crash soon thereafter.

Figuring Out the Link

Are all these feelings – the moments of extreme euphoria mixed with bleak sadness – caused by an emotional issue? Actually, it’s a chemical one.

In addition to dopamine, researchers at Syracuse University found several other euphoria-inducing chemicals. Those include vasopressin, adrenaline and oxytocin; all three can be activated by love and/or cocaine.

Keep in mind, however, the brain is a complex and mysterious organ. Different types of love register in different areas of the brain, meaning your neurological system is affected in various ways. For example, a mother’s love for her kids registers in the mid-brain where compassion is processed, while passionate love and drugs register in the the brain’s reward circuit.

Simply put, activation of the brain’s reward circuitry tells you to repeat actions that result in reward. This activation also triggers your brain’s memory centers, directing them to pay close attention to the features of rewarding experiences, ensuring they can be repeated in the future.

Love Abstinence is not an Option

Unlike addictions to drugs and alcohol where total abstinence is called for, love is a necessary and vital aspect of the human experience. However, if you’re prone to other types of addiction, it’s pretty safe to assume that overdosing on love is possible.

If love or romance is causing prolonged emotional pain or unmanageability in any aspect of your life, here’s what you can do to stop the cycle:

  • Talk about it! Tell a trusted friend, therapist or confidant and get out of your head.
  • Check out any number of twelve step fellowships for love or sex addiction.
  • Take a break from the love game for 90 days and replace it with other rewarding activities. Opt for things like baking, painting or volunteering at an animal shelter.

Additional Reading: Understanding Intimacy: Love and Romance Addiction