limbic bonding

Limbic Bonding: How Your Brain Can Keep You Attached to Toxic Relationships

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Suffering from a broken heart can be one of the worst experiences we endure in our lifetime. This type of loss often makes us question ourselves and the world around us. It’s raw and painful and can, at times, feel utterly hopeless.

But what else is at play when you’re experiencing heartache? After all, it isn’t just your emotions being turned inside-out. Your brain chemicals- and the way your brain communicates with the rest of your body- also undergo massive changes.

Learning about the relationship between the limbic system and love can help you understand your emotions. That insight can cultivate the ability to heal from your pain.

Let’s get to it.

What Does the Limbic System Do?

The limbic system is the part of the brain associated with emotional and behavioral responses. It is one of the oldest and most primitive parts- that’s why it’s so closely connected with survival. Without this part, you would not function. Along with survival instincts, it regulates basic tasks like mood, hunger, and sex drive. 

Amygdala

The amygdala is responsible for coping with fear and danger. The amygdala works hard to scan for potential threats in the environment. When it detects a threat, it prepares the body to respond, therefore triggering your fight-or-flight reflexes.

Of course, the amygdala has significantly evolved over time. Back in the day, we needed this part of the brain to detect if a wild animal might kill and eat us. Nowadays, of course, that isn’t a fear that plagues us on a regular basis. 

Yet, the amygdala is likely responsible for why so many people feel scared in situations like dark rooms, spiders, heights, and overly crowded spaces. The brain wants to protect us from life-threatening conditions. So when it assumes something dangerous could occur, it triggers a sense of fear. That fear helps you react promptly and successfully. 

Hippocampus

The hippocampus helps with memory and emotional processing. In addition, this part of the brain supports “coding” new associations. For example, it links the smell of sunscreen with summer and an old song with your high school friends. 

With this, the hippocampus is constantly involved in absorbing, learning, and integrating new information. We have millions of associations that we unconsciously pair together. The hippocampus maintains those and helps us draw meaningful connections in daily life. 

Thalamus and Hypothalamus 

The thalamus acts as a critical communicator within the brain. It receives and transfers key information and essentially tells the rest of the body what to do next. It’s also responsible for functions like sleep, wakefulness, and alertness. 

The hypothalamus supports homeostasis. Everybody has a “set threshold” for systems like hunger, body temperature, and fatigue. The hypothalamus aims to achieve this equilibrium, and it will send messages to other parts of the brain to support regulation.

How Do Toxic Relationships Dysregulate the Limbic System?

While limbic bonds are important for strengthening healthy relationships, they can make it difficult to leave toxic relationships.

For example, let’s say you endured an emotionally abusive relationship. Your partner was vindictive and spiteful. They criticized you often. They gaslit your reality and made you feel like you were incompetent and worthless.

The amygdala may have interpreted this dynamic as scary, but you continued ignoring its signals (as we tend to do in such relationships). As a result, your amygdala may be overly hypervigilant when interacting with others in the future. Or, it may be unresponsive altogether, explaining why so many people repeat abusive patterns.

The hippocampus may have created unhelpful and toxic associations like love must include some conflict, or, if someone compliments me, I need to be skeptical that they’ll turn on me the next moment. Because those associations feel so factual, they can pave an unhealthy path for future relationships.

It’s important to note that these experiences aren’t your fault. You didn’t cause yourself to feel or think a certain way. The brain is simply interested in survival and self-protection. Therefore, it will do what it needs to do to try and avoid more danger.

What Does Love Do to the Limbic System?

Falling in love can feel mesmerizing, consuming, and terrifying all at once. And that’s because your brain is, quite literally, in overdrive when it happens.

The neuroscience of falling in love shows that the brain releases extraordinary amounts of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin. The combination of these hormones can mimic a drug-like euphoria. Some research even shows the amygdala turns off during this time, meaning you don’t feel the fear you’d typically experience.

This intoxicating feeling explains why we often can’t sleep, think, or even function well during those first few weeks. It also explains why we often think of new partners as entirely perfect- we can’t see any of their flaws or potential red flags

Eventually, the hormonal tidal wave diminishes, leaving you feeling a new equilibrium with your partner. In a healthy relationship, this equilibrium entails a sense of mutual respect, excitement to spend time together, and a deep friendship.

In more toxic relationships, this equilibrium tends to be chaotic and inconsistent- the “normal” consists of conflict, tension, and intense emotions.  People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder have reduced gray matter volume in areas of the brain related to empathy, preventing them from forming an emotional or limbic bond with others, including their own children.  This is also why they don’t experience the heartbreak of breaking up as normal people do. 

Narcissists don’t attach to others, which is why they can easily form new relationships, while their former partners are left to pick up the pieces of their broken hearts for months or years.

How Does Heartbreak Affect the Limbic System? 

In a fundamental sense, heartbreak triggers deeply-rooted fears of survival. Think about it. Have you ever assumed you’d be unlovable or forever alone after a relationship ended? Have you ever believed that you would be utterly doomed without your ex? If so, that’s your limbic system holding onto fear, and that fear feels so real. 

Those valid fears hit the most primitive, vulnerable parts of ourselves. It’s why breakups can feel so devastating and why most of us struggle to move on. We don’t want to confront that part of our brain that tells us, without that person, everything will be bad. 

Unfortunately, as you probably know, the mind can play tricks on you. No matter how terrible things were with your ex, it’s normal to fantasize and romanticize all the best parts of your relationship as soon as it ends. 

You may find yourself longing deeply for the relationship, even if you know it needed to end. Unfortunately, this longing often triggers irrational actions that keep you bonded to the past. 

In many ways, the limbic system can keep people attached to their ex-partners. Any form of contact, especially when it’s physical, triggers those same feel-good hormones. That’s why cutting sex– even after you’ve broken up- can be so challenging. 

The brain interprets those experiences as pleasurable and essentially starts to crave them. That’s why you may keep texting, spending time, or even sleeping with your ex- despite your best intentions to move on.

The Limbic System and Love: How Do You Move On?

Breakups aren’t easy, but you’re only reinforcing the brain’s confusion if you keep going back and forth. In addition, the brain will only continue supporting negative messages about loneliness and unlovability. 

Remember, your limbic system is very smart, but it’s also highly primitive. It’s focused on in-the-moment survival to keep you alive. That doesn’t mean it inherently reinforces the best decisions. 

Of course, at the present moment, staying with your ex may feel good. But long-term, this decision only creates more pain and problems.

Fortunately, you can overcome your limbic system. However, doing so requires repeated actions grounded in moving on with your life. In most cases, this means embracing a no-contact approach with your ex. Over time, your brain will catch up to reinforce your decisions. It just may take a few weeks or months.


Can You Heal Your Brain From Trauma? 

At times, we all feel like victims of our pasts. It can be scary to assume that past trauma will define your present and future functioning. 

Fortunately, in most cases, you can reverse the changes in your amygdala, hippocampus, and greater limbic system. You can even make healthier associations between the limbic system and love. The brain is neuroplastic and can code new ways of thinking with practice, effort, and consistency. 

With that said, overcoming trauma isn’t easy. It requires conscious efforts to change the ways you think and respond. It also entails that you eliminate connection with your ex. If your brain gets a hit of positivity, it will likely cling onto that feeling. It’s not unlike an alcoholic who needs to avoid taking a sip of their favorite stiff drink. 

Remember that healing takes time, but you can intentionally choose to commit to moving on. You can decide to stop talking to your ex, looking them up online, or dwelling on past memories. You can also plan to engage in actions that make you feel better, like reaching out to positive support, practicing healthier self-care, and focusing on more self-compassion.

Your brain is not the sum of the trauma you endured. In many ways, it is a sponge absorbing different messages, experiences, and reactions. So try to focus on how it can absorb higher-quality things moving forward. 

I cover the applications and theories in all of these areas in my narcissistic abuse recovery program.

Develop effective ways to break free from narcissistic abuse and finally end the nightmare.

You can find out more details here.

This nurturing program includes a wonderful private community that assists and supports all people detaching and healing from narcissistic abuse, no matter who the narcissist is (such as family member, spouse, partner, friend, etc.) and regardless of the circumstances involved. 


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2 comments
liz says November 22, 2021

this is an excellent article, I need to let you know that, Kim.

astute insight and reassuring….as all of your articles are.

thank you for the time, energy and devotion you put into your work here….and for your ability to articulate and share your own experiences in such a way that benefits others so positively.

Reply
    Kim Saeed says November 23, 2021

    Thank you for your kind praise, Liz. You’ve warmed my heart and given me renewed motivation for today (●⁀‿⁀●)

    Kim

    Reply
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