What falling in love and falling off a cliff have in common

Last update: February 21, 2024
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Reading time: 2 minutes
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By Brain Matters

Have you ever fallen in love? If yes, then you probably know how exciting and all-encompassing this experience can be. But falling in love also seems to be a very stressful experience, or at least that’s what research on neurotransmitters  and hormones tells us…

First falling in love with someone is, arguably, one of the most exhilarating human experiences. The other person makes you feel euphoric about life and your potential future together. This early joy is thought to be linked to an increase of phenylethylamine (or PEA), a neurotransmitter with a structure similar to amphetamines (= strong stimulant drugs!). You might also think of your partner many times a day. This obsession seems to be caused by lower serotonin activity in the brain. Serotonin is involved in regulating, for instance, sleep and emotion, and interestingly, lowered levels of this neurotransmitter are often seen in depressed patients. Overall you can see that falling in love can be quite intense…although, new lovers hopefully aren’t actually feeling depressed!

But how is falling in love related to fear and stress then? Well, this is where cortisol comes in. Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands above your kidneys during stressful or threatening situations.* Precisely these increased levels of cortisol were for instance found in a study which compared people who had recently fallen in love with ones that were single or in a longer-lasting relationship. When testing the same people one to two years later, their cortisol levels had gone back to ‘normal’. It makes sense that first getting to know and love someone would be a fearful situation too. For example, you may be scared that they don’t like you as much as you do or wonder whether you can trust them. In other words, forming an attachment can be a bit overwhelming!

Interestingly, the stress experienced together seems to be important for building attachment: Research on humans has shown that being in a high-stress situation together seems to help with developing a better relationship. Thus, the stress of falling in love with each other and the stress of (for example) riding a rollercoaster together may improve your bond to someone.

In conclusion, falling in love can feel wonderful and scary at the same time. But as we’ve seen this is perfectly normal. So, trust your brain, and try to enjoy it!

 *If you want to know more about cortisol and the nature of fear, check out this article on fear in the brain

Author: Melanie Smekal

References

Association to PEA: Liebowitz, M. R. (1983). The chemistry of love. Little, Brown.

Cortisol Study: Marazziti, D., & Canale, D. (2004). Hormonal changes when falling in love. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29(7), 931-936. https://www-sciencedirect-com.mu.idm.oclc.org/science/article/pii/S0306453003001616?casa_token=lwc6kvtcjGkAAAAA:ZRB8qYqpuTCssi_hLfr0E0PSCAdR-rXQewxKQtPvLYMuK45_cfaE2PoBy99hHVrdsVWZGcee#BIB36

Partial  image by upklyak on Freepik: https://www.freepik.com/free-vector/set-people-slip-wet-floor-stumble-vector_28590660.htm#query=danger%20fall&position=3&from_view=search

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