Relationships make us whole. Positive connections in our lives make life rewarding and help us grow. There are also significant health benefits, beyond just feeling good. Obviously, love itself, has many facets, a physical component with changes in the body and certain responses, an emotional component with different feelings, both positive and negative, and finally, a spiritual aspect. According to Bianca Acevedo, of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), we are now, over the last decade, starting to finally understand how these come together, through brain science.
“I really believe that love is at the center of the universe, the larger cosmic universe and our internal universe, our brains, but also our inner life. It’s one of the most important things in our lives. It can really bring us to life, make us feel all sorts of wonderful things, like joy, ecstasy and euphoria, but on the flip side of that, it can also be the cause of some of our deepest suffering,” Bianca Acevedo.
Acevedo, says she understood the highs and lows of love very early on in life and gravitated towards psychology and work involving relationships. She explains that brain science can show us how love activates our dopamine system, involved in motivation, desires, goals, cravings and addictions. Love activates these same brain areas, which also respond to food, cocaine or other rewards, even money, but it’s not just the highs.
Love also affects systems responsible for feelings of calmness, security and tranquility, through the serotonin system, also known for its role in depression and spiritual experiences. Acevedo believes that understanding these physiological changes, can actually help us create the type of relationships we want — for example, determining if you are really in love with your partner or your partner is really in love with you, as well as the best and worst components of your relationship.
“Imagine opening the hood of a car and looking inside and seeing this is the piece that’s not working, and that’s why the car is not running. It’s akin to a tool like that. You complete this assessment tool, and then, you see very clearly what are the things that are working, and what are the things that are not working. Some of the time, it’s just about fixing that one piece!” Bianca Acevedo.
In the not too distant future, Acevedo, and her partner Daniel Nichita, hope there will even be an app for that! They are working together to develop a smartphone and web diagnostic tool with a series of questions; for the time being, it is called “The Love App.” It will give scores and feedback for different parts of the relationship and overall strength, as well as provide resources such as therapists or relationship scientists to deal with acute problems. This will complement a series of books, soon to launch, that Acevedo has been working on over the last few years, beginning with, “From Heartbreak to Victory.”
Heartbreak, while extremely painful, can also be an opportunity for awakening and becoming conscious. The most important thing that we can do, is to stay connected with our positive relationships, in our friends and family,“ultimately, it’s through love, laughter and positive experiences that we bring our system back to homeostasis.” Acevedo stipulates that there may be evolutionary reasons for holding on to this kind of pain that served our ancestors, but we need to find a replacement in our modern society. It’s all too easy to become focused on our own feelings and what we are suffering, so we need something outside of ourselves, and to think about what other people are going through.
It turns out, our brain’s responses to romantic partners are almost identical to those of other important attachment figures, like our mother, father or child. Acevedo explains that through brain research, we’ve come to see this as an entire attachment system. It’s speculated that our early attachments frame cognitive templates for later romantic relationships, explaining who we find attractive and even why we might want someone who is definitely not an ideal partner. This can be a big problem when someone has experienced a trauma early in life or abuse, since our early attachments, in childhood, can set the chemistry for the rest of our lives.
Luckily, we can change those unhealthy patterns with positive experiences. A loving and supportive partner can help us develop new, cognitive patterns, behaviors and ways of thinking. There is a risk, however, of burnout for the healthy partner, so they may not want to stay in a relationship like that. But, for the partner that has been through the trauma, it can help them to change, grow and develop healthier relationships down the road.
Acevedo, wrote about the response of highly sensitive people to such suffering or joy in her popular paper, “The Highly Sensitive Brain,” which detailed levels of physiological change when looking at a partner’s face, under different emotional conditions. This kind of heightened sensitivity is seen not only in humans, but in 20 percent of animals.
The brain is more responsive to other people’s emotions, which can actually make life quite difficult and overwhelming. Areas involving anxiety, responsiveness and attention, all show more activation, as well as empathy. They can actually feel what other people are feeling, especially their partner’s, and they process information in a different way, where they can quickly become over stimulated. Acevedo, even consulted for a recent movie, called, “Sensitive,” produced by the Emmy award-winning GlobalTouch Group, Inc. (GTG).
It is not surprising that the benefits of yoga and meditation in dealing with emotional and physical stress are also a topic of hot research for Acevedo, a daily practitioner herself. Highly sensitive individuals need more breaks and tools to deal with their overstimulation. Yoga engages parts of the brain important for executive control and decision-making, vital aspects of healthy and happy relationships for everyone, regardless of emotional sensitivity. It helps us be more mindful of each other and to do those little, positive things that are so meaningful, like just picking up flowers after work. It also affects negative behaviors, like controlling the impulse to flirt with someone or how we deal with conflict and irritation.
Acevedo and Nichita are also looking for strategic partners and investors that may be interested in developing their work into an even larger project, because it does take additional people and resources to grow.