Love has been defined in a myriad of ways: deep affection, great interest or pleasure in something or someone, unconditional positive regard, along with a plethora of poetic interpretations. But what do we know about the scientific effects of love on mental health?
We experience love when we interact with others and ourselves – love is more than just an isolated feeling. Science shows that love involves multiple neurotransmitters and hormones that affect our physiology and mental health¹.
At All Points North, we believe that connection is essential for long-term recovery. That’s why we’re taking a closer look at love, its associated meanings, and how we can incorporate love into a healing protocol for clinical and non-clinical populations as part of a mind/body/spirit approach to mental well-being.
Taking a Closer Look at Love
Many poets, philosophers, and scientists have attempted to define love, and while their definitions often vary, most would agree that love is a powerful force beyond reason. Matters of the heart defy logic at times. Love is a feeling we can experience on a spectrum: the highs, the lows, and all the layers in between. It’s an individual experience that is known, felt, and then individually interpreted.
When people think of love, they usually think of the positive feelings associated with a deep connection. However, love can encompass more than just happiness, and it can exist alongside other emotions.
Early on, love was considered too mysterious to be studied scientifically. However, as time progressed, so did the idea that love is fundamental to health². Holistic approaches often include love as a critical component necessary to achieve optimum individual wellness³.
Love’s Effects on the Body
Researchers can now understand what happens when someone experiences feelings of love. Different processes occur during each stage of love.
In the early stages of love, serotonin levels drop, and dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, kicks in⁴, causing a sort of infatuation effect. Eventually, serotonin levels return to normal during the first year, which reduces the obsessive effects, and oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with a calmer, more mature form of love, increases⁴.
Oxytocin is associated with⁵:
- Establishing bonds
- Raising immune function
- Decreasing depression
- Lowering blood pressure
- Decreasing stress
- Stimulating positive social interaction
- Promoting growth and healing
Further research shows that social interaction and a positive environment can continuously activate oxytocin⁵. The good news for clinicians and clients alike is that “various types of psychotherapy involving transfer of support, warmth and empathy are likely to induce similar effects, which thus contribute to the positive effects of these kinds of therapies.” ⁵ In other words, a warm and caring clinician can stimulate oxytocin production for their clients!
What’s even more exciting is that oxytocin inhibits tolerance to addictive drugs, including opiates, cocaine, and alcohol, and it also reduces withdrawal symptoms⁶. Oxytocin satisfies cravings in a healthy way, so we can conclude that healthy love is supportive and conducive to mental health and overall well-being.
What Does Healthy Love Look Like?
Healthy relationships exhibit a level of mutual support, understanding, and respect. This goes for all relationships, not just romantic – even friendships and familial relationships. Healthy love allows you to evolve and doesn’t hinder daily functioning like addictions often do.
Here are some of the characteristics found in healthy love⁷:
- Trust – One of the most important pillars for any relationship, trust is the ability to count on someone and feel secure and safe, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. One of the ways you can work on trust is by learning more about your attachment style and your needs for safety in a relationship. This is especially important for those of us who have experienced trauma.
- Communication – Healthy communication is vital in every romantic, familial, or platonic relationship. Communication is often the key to reducing misunderstandings and moving forward after a disagreement.
- Patience – Giving yourself and your loved one grace, taking things as they come instead of making someone bend to your terms, and giving someone space to process their emotions.
- Empathy – Being willing to see another perspective; understanding instead of seeking to be understood.
- Affection and Interest – Showing your interest by expressing love in various ways: words of affirmation, physical touch, acts of service, quality time, and even gift-giving.
- Adaptability – Compromising and being flexible, adjusting to changing factors, finding ways to solve problems as a team.
- Appreciation – Feeling gratitude and seeing the good in your partner and yourself.
- A Willingness to Learn and Grow – Continually learning and challenging yourself to evolve allows a relationship to evolve.
- Respect – Another essential pillar in relationships, respect involves communicating lovingly and being mindful of your partner’s wants and needs.
- Reciprocity – While relationships are rarely 50/50, the effort should be shared with a similar level of give-and-take so the relationship isn’t one-sided.
Mental health practitioners often support clients in navigating various manifestations of love. From developing healthy communication in a family system to exploring self-love, and especially the more challenging support in working through a breakup, codependency, or other toxic relationship patterns, love is an extremely common topic of exploration in therapy.
Defining Unhealthy Love
Unfortunately, popular culture has made it easy to confuse toxic love for healthy love; this is especially true if you have a history of trauma or abusive relationships. In such situations, someone may feel more comfortable in a toxic love relationship simply because it feels familiar. Just like a therapist can help clients gain awareness and techniques that support healthy love, they can also help clients understand what healthy love isn’t.
Love can often be misunderstood or misrepresented as limerence, infatuation, or love addiction, which is a “pattern of behavior characterized by a maladaptive, pervasive and excessive interest towards one or more romantic partners, resulting in lack of control, the renounce of other interests and behavior, and other negative consequences.” ⁸ Love addiction can look like a compulsive need to be in love or fall in love often or constantly putting a romantic partner or love interest on a pedestal. Those with love addiction may obsess over a romantic interest and create a dependency or codependency on their partner to the point of experiencing cravings, withdrawals, and euphoria when separated.
Similar to love addiction, limerence is “an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”⁹ The difference between the two is that love addiction focuses on replicating the feeling of love with various sources, and limerence is limited to an infatuation with a specific individual.
Researchers draw parallels between limerence, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and Substance Use Disorder (SUD), yet it remains its own distinct condition. Love addiction presents as a process addiction like gambling addiction, sex addiction, or food addiction, though it is not currently included in the DSM-5.
Romantic love often activates the same regions of the brain that are activated in process addictions¹⁰. With love activating the dopamine reward center and triggering so many feel-good chemicals, it’s easy to understand how romantic love could lead to a more complicated and potentially harmful experience. That’s why it’s so important to have clarity around healthy love and what to look for in a partner.
Building Healthy Relationships
As humans, we are all on a self-discovery path, especially if you are in recovery. The most important relationship any of us will ever experience is the one we have with ourselves. The good news is you can cultivate self-love, even if you’ve been able to foster a positive relationship with yourself in the past.
Relationships can challenge us, but that challenge can be deeply rewarding when it’s rooted in healthy love. This is also true for self-love: the more self-love you have for yourself, the more likely you are to protect yourself and your boundaries and attract a partner who will do the same. In other words, you won’t tolerate toxic people, places, and things, because it doesn’t fit within your schema of love.
Love and Connection in Recovery
Loving and stable relationships can help improve a person’s ability to manage stress and can help to decrease anxiety and depression¹. As social creatures, we seek connection – we see this in recovery communities, which is why social support groups are often a vital component of recovery¹. Often, the love found in these supportive connections gives people hope to keep going. Recovery does not happen in isolation, and at some point, we will all need to lean on the love and support found in a community. Loving and stable relationships can deter mental illness and enhance recovery from mental health conditions.
Love can heal, and the loss of love can deeply wound us – both sides of the coin are part of the human experience. With this knowledge in mind, we can all work towards a greater understanding of healthy love and try to prioritize that connection with each other. The smallest acts of kindness can make the greatest impressions of love. When you choose to act lovingly towards yourself or someone else, you’re choosing health and well-being, plus improved quality and quantity of life.
Support for Healthy Relationships
At All Points North, we believe that connection is a prerequisite for recovery and that love can transform your brain on a cellular level. Whether you’ve had trouble establishing healthy, supportive relationships in the past, you need help developing self-confidence and self-love, or if you need support repairing your family system, we’re here to help.
Our treatment center and telehealth offerings help clients address the root causes of disconnection stemming from mental health issues, trauma, and addiction. You can make a step toward healing today by starting a with one of our caring contact center representatives or by calling us at 855-510-4585.
Healthy relationships with yourself and others take time and effort, but you can develop fulfilling connections and thrive with support.
- Vallas, Melissa. “The Positive Effects of Love on Mental Health.” Psychiatry Advisor, 4 Mar. 2015, https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/mood-disorders/the-positive-effects-of-love-on-mental-health/.
- Myers, Jane E., and W. Matthew Shurts. “Measuring Positive Emotionality: A Review of Instruments Assessing Love.” Sage Publications, 2002.
- Myers, Jane E., et al. “The Wheel of Wellness Counseling for Wellness: A Holistic Model for Treatment Planning.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 23 Dec. 2011, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2000.tb01906.x.
- Powell, Alvin. “Scientists Find a Few Surprises in Their Study of Love.” Harvard Gazette, Harvard Gazette, 13 Feb. 2018, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/02/scientists-find-a-few-surprises-in-their-study-of-love/.
- Uvnas-Moberg, Kerstin, and Maria Petersson. “Oxytocin, ein Vermittler von Antistress, Wohlbefinden, sozialer Interaktion, Wachstum und Heilung” [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing]. Zeitschrift fur Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychotherapie vol. 51,1 (2005): 57-80. doi:10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57
- Sarnyai, Z. “Oxytocin and neuroadaptation to cocaine.” Progress in brain research vol. 119 (1998): 449-66. doi:10.1016/s0079-6123(08)61587-3
- Bonoir, Andrea. “What Does a Healthy Relationship Look Like?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 28 Dec. 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendship-20/201812/what-does-healthy-relationship-look.
- Sanches, M., & John, V. P. (2019). Treatment of love addiction: Current status and perspectives. European Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 38-44.
- Tennov, Dorothy. Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. Scarborough House, 1999.
- Wyant, Brandy E. “Treatment of Limerence Using a Cognitive Behavioral Approach: A Case Study.” Journal of patient experience vol. 8 23743735211060812. 23 Nov. 2021, doi:10.1177/23743735211060812
Reviewed by Emmeline Massey MSW, LSW