Limerence has two major components:
- The inbuilt systems of the brain that we all share, which can be activated by the right stimuli
- Our individual personal history that determines which stimuli activate those circuits
To manage limerence well, you have to understand both components. You need to know what is going on in your head during the escalating neurochemical high of limerence, and you need to know yourself. If you don’t understand the neuroscience, you won’t appreciate the factors and behaviours that reinforce person addiction. If you don’t understand why you respond to certain people and how you cope with stress, you won’t be able to identify your own psychological vulnerabilities.
Previously, I’ve written about the key neural systems that explain the symptoms of limerence – reward, motivation, euphoria, arousal, and bonding. The neurochemistry of these emotional phenomena is pretty well understood, in the sense that we have a lot of experimental evidence and clinical experience that allows us to tell a persuasive story, as long as we’re OK with a bit of simplification.
One notable absence in previous discussions is a neurotransmitter that comes up a lot in discussions about mood disorders, anxiety, and love – serotonin. I’ve purposefully tiptoed around this, because of all the transmitters, serotonin most exemplifies the problem of oversimplification. When it comes to understanding how serotonin might contribute to the neurochemistry of limerence the only credible answer is “it’s complicated.”
That’s a pretty unsatisfactory answer, so today I’m going to stop pussyfooting around and actually try and confront the problem. How does serotonin contribute to limerence?
What is serotonin?
The complications begin right at the very beginning. What is serotonin? Well, even the name reveals how confounding it is to explain what it is and what it does.
In the UK, we generally favour the name 5-hydroxytryptamine or 5-HT, which is considerably less memorable and accessible than “serotonin”, but has the advantage that it hides the etymology of the word, which roughly translates to “serum tonic chemical”. That’s because serotonin was first identified as a messenger that is released during blood clotting and regulates blood pressure – a dirty job of research that involved draining thousands of litres of blood from a slaughterhouse through a cheesecloth.
Serotonin is one of those compounds that nature has found so useful that it’s been used again and again in multiple biological contexts, but for our purposes, serotonin is most interesting as a neurotransmitter. Unfortunately, that doesn’t narrow things down much further.
In terms of neuroscience, serotonin has been implicated in dozens of processes – as diverse as regulation of sleep, feeding, body temperature, sexual behaviour, aggression, and cognition. Serotonin originates from a few clusters of cells in the brainstem (the raphae nuclei), but those neurons project fibres everywhere – all through the brain and spinal cord.
You have to be a bit of a masochist to work on serotonin as a researcher. If you mess with serotonin signalling, you mess with an awful lot of neurophysiology.
Serotonin and mood
OK, so with that preamble out of the way, it has to be said that for all the complexities around serotonin, if you ask most neuroscientists what serotonin does in the brain they are likely to say “mood regulation”. That has certainly become the dominant perception, and it is mainly because of antidepressants.
Prozac was a true blockbuster drug. By 2005 total estimated sales were over $22 billion. Over 40 million people had been prescribed it. Prozac (real name fluoxetine) was the first of the class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which – as the name suggests – prevent the clearance of serotonin from around neurons after it has been released.
Normally, neurotransmission is very carefully regulated. After serotonin has been released from a neuron it is actively transported back across the cell membrane to terminate the signal, and prevent persistent activation of receptors. You need an off switch for neurotransmission or else the brain would just fill up with neurochemicals and crash.
Prozac blocks that reuptake mechanism. Serotonin is released, but the clearance mechanism is inhibited and so the transmitter… hangs around. The result is that serotonin signalling is amplified. You get stronger signals that last longer, and over time, the total amount of serotonin in the cerebrospinal fluid bathing the brain builds up.
SSRIs proved a successful strategy for treatment of clinical depression. A little over half of the people suffering through the suicidal despair of major depressive disorder get significant relief by taking antidepressants. The effectiveness of these drugs helped cement the notion that mood is linked directly to serotonin levels, and that mood disorders are caused by “low serotonin”.
Serotonin and OCD
The idea that low serotonin causes mental illnesses has really taken hold. Another example is obsessive compulsive disorder. As with depression, treatment of OCD with SSRIs has shown significant clinical benefit. OCD is characterised by irrational fears, intrusive thoughts, and compulsive rituals that are used to soothe the anxiety caused by the painful thoughts and fears.
Again, this makes sense within the framework of serotonin signalling. If OCD symptoms result in part from ineffective communication between the lower and higher brain structures, and serotonin is key to that bidirectional communication, then boosting serotonin signalling should help.
The correlation between low serotonin and anxiety and depression is strong. The evidence base is decades old. But if you talk to patients on antidepressants, you find that the drugs don’t generally cause happiness, they actually seem to flatten mood.
Boosting serotonin in this way stops the extremes of mood, both positive and negative, and causes a kind of muted insensitivity. That is undeniably preferable to the agony of depression or OCD, but it also shows that the idea that there is a direct connection between increasing levels of serotonin and increasing levels of happiness is an oversimplification.
The state of the art
So, I’ve made a big issue all the way through this post about how complicated it is to understand serotonin, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. For a start, SSRIs actually decrease serotonin release in the short term. Turns out that serotonin controls serotonin release, and so if you boost serotonin levels you cause “autoinhibition”. That process eventually adapts, which is why it takes antidepressants weeks to stabilise mood.
Another complication is that serotonin regulates many, many other neurochemical pathways, and so messing with serotonin actually messes with lots of other neural systems. And hormonal systems. And neurovascular systems. All of which may also contribute to mood.
To really throw a spanner in the works, a paper was published last year showing that antidepressants can directly activate receptors for a whole other neuropeptide signalling system totally independently of serotonin, and that many of the effects on mood might be caused by that mechanism instead.
Serotonin and limerence
All that discussion brings us back, at last, to limerence. You can hopefully see now why I generally avoid discussion of serotonin when it comes to the neuroscience of infatuation.
Where claims are made that limerence is linked to low serotonin, the evidence can only be by analogy to other mood disorders, or regulation of sexual behaviour (where serotonin tends to inhibit libido). No one has done direct research on serotonin and limerence, because it just does not have the recognition as a defined condition to garner enough attention.
I’ve previously argued that OCD and limerence are different in a critical way – limerence emerges from euphoria and reward-seeking behaviour, rather than fear and anxiety. Limerence is an altered state of mind that more closely resembles a behavioural addiction than a mood or anxiety disorder. Given that, the role of serotonin is likely to be less central.
Research into the mechanisms of addiction suggest that serotonin may feature in control of impulsivity, but this rapidly gets muddled into the complex of interlocking regulatory networks that serotonin can influence.
Antidepressants have very little utility for treating addiction. There is a complicating factor that addictions can develop for drugs or alcohol that were initially used to self-medicate against anxiety and depression, but attempting to manage the craving with SSRIs is pretty much useless in most cases of substance abuse.
Add all this up, and the role of serotonin in limerence seems to disappear into a mass of confounding variables. When it comes to the neurochemical basis of romantic infatuation, serotonin is bound to be in there somewhere, but teasing it out with any sophistication seems almost impossible.
So, that’s why I tend to neglect serotonin in discussions of the neuroscience of limerence.
It’s just too complicated.
Dopamine is easy by comparison.
Thanks for this timely post. It’s been half a year since I’ve last been in contact with LO. I no longer idealize him or even like him to be honest.. it doesn’t pain me to think that I’ll never see him again. BUT … I’m still finding it unbelievably difficult to overcome the use of rumination for mood regulation. Every single time I’m stressed about something unrelated in my life, I have an overwhelming craving to read old texts, to look him up online, or to just think about him and about experiences we shared together, and I often cave. (This psychological dependence has meant that I still can’t get myself to delete these texts.) Why is my rational mind and my lack of desire for LO not mapping onto my stress/mood regulation reflexes? Can I ever expect it to? I’ve read the blog post on wanting versus liking, but I don’t even want him either – I just (stupidly) want the idea of him for stress relief. Having other helpful stress relievers isn’t eliminating this dependence either, it just pushes it to the side until it rears its ugly head stronger next time. It is driving me crazy and I am really desperate for it to stop.
What comfort do you get from looking at the past texts? It is surprising that they comfort you despite your general feelings about LO.
Even so, my tactic was nuclear. I have deleted everything off my phone. Deleting the photos felt too much to bear, but I transferred them to a memory stick. I’ve gone to the effort of looking at them a couple of times, because I’d have to have access to my laptop to do it. This didn’t erase the pain overnight, but having any access to the materials on my phone was a no no.
I don’t know how many limerents go through the ritual destruction. I think a lot. I still (now very rarely) ruminate on LO. It certainly correlates with stress. The less I’ve done it, the more apparent the pattern becomes. When you’re ruminating lots everyday, then spotting triggers is hard, but now if I’m having a hard time at work, or feeling generally lonely that’s when the rumination might strike. But after a year+ of NC it’s better.
If I had loads of media to go back over whenever I wanted I think I’d be suffering a huge amount more.
Delete whatever you can. Relocate what you can’t face to lose, but somewhere you COULD but usually won’t be able to just scroll through on your phone.
I think modern chat media is quite problematic. I was married for eight years, and I realised that the whole marriage existed on an FB messenger thread. Falling in love. Failing in marriage. Splitting up. Frozen there in speech bubbles. I deleted it all.
It’s in the past. Conversations and interactions can still be transient. We don’t need a record of everything that’s hurt us.
Obviously there was more to my marriage than FB messages. Like, we met and lived together and everything.
I agree. Get rid of the mementos. It will be freeing. Before everything was digital, I would have cleansing ceremonies to burn picture and letters. I’d pawn jewelry. There is something very satisfying about burning letters and pictures of someone, especially if they have been crappy to you! 🙂 And even if I only got $10 for the jewelry, it was a nice meal at Wendy’s. 🙂 More recently, it’s as you said: Delete everything. If you can bear to do it. I have nothing left from past people, LO or otherwise, minus a couple of pictures from my last LO that I actually printed out and have in a folder in my desk. I haven’t looked at them in months. I’m just not totally ready to get rid of them yet. I should, though.
The texts were from a time when my LO was limerent for me too and things were going swimmingly well. Weirdly enough, they still provide the comfort of limerent fantasy, which is of course at this point a totally false and counterproductive comfort, and even though I have no desire for LO per se anymore. This comfort is also particular to written mementos. I have pictures on my phone but I have a much better ability to resist them; I almost never look at them. As Dr L aptly pointed out in another blog post – i forgot which one – the written word can have a lot of power over some limerents, as it can be used to analyze, overanalyze, and feed the general obsessive tendencies.
Any way, you are totally right. I must make them much harder to access. I don’t think I can bring myself to lose them forever, at least not right now, but I will find a way to relocate them. Otherwise, I just won’t be able to move past it.
As you saw with Marcia and myself, I think we all have some things that we can’t bear to let go, immediately. Just the other day I found a cache of old pics on my mobile that got transfered when I changed phones.
I immediately started scrolling looking for LO. He was frustratingly missing. But then I actually realised the pictures were from the right year (2018) but the early months, before I met him…
How funny. I suppose the message from that is that I was given a timely reminder that there was life before my last LO, and I’m getting back there. But I can still feel that frantic excitement if I get a hint that there might be a picture that survived the cull.
“But I can still feel that frantic excitement if I get a hint that there might be a picture that survived the cull.”
I look at the pictures of my LO (when I allow myself to) and they make me sad. I think of all the wonderful thing that could have happened … had he not blocked everything! 🙂 Part of me still thinks of it as this huge missed opportunity, even though the rest of me knows that is not true.
But I’ll never see my LO again face to face and he has no online presence at all. So if I get rid of the pictures, I will literally never see him again.
It’s a common syndrome, Reader. I think the basic cause is that we train our brains to link LO (and the positive emotions of giddy limerence) with reward. So when we become demoralised or distressed our subconscious instinctively seeks reward where it has learned to find it – in limerent reverie. It’s a bad coping mechanism. An easy short term fix to ease the discomfort, but without addressing the actual issue. You could even draw an analogy with OCD rituals, in that reverie is a way to get fleeting relief, but it ends up reinforcing the “brain training”.
The only way out of it that I know of is to spend some real quality time seeking out new, healthier sources of reward. Slowly wean your subconscious off its old coping strategy by teaching it a new one…
@Dr. L: Could those “positive emotions of giddy limerence” be explained by oxytocin? And what about the dopamine/oxytocin link? Given all the positive things associated with oxytocin, it seems like using an LO to get an oxytocin boost would be the lesser evil, but I think what you are saying is to find a difference source to boost oxytocin levels?
My goodness, it’s like I wrote this comment myself. Yes, just want the idea of him at this point. Such a strange feeling.
Meredith Ann says
I am always blown away at the sophistication and yet readability of your blogs- thank you
I am fascinated by the brain/mind/consciousness
As I am a recovered limerant ( or working towards life long remission) I am sad to report that my oldest child at 15 is exibiting signs consistent with Boarderline Personality Disorder ( BPD) . As I delve into understanding my question is ‘have you noticed any correlation or overlap between limerance or vulnerability to linerance and personality disorders?”
I fear my poor daughter has had the genetic deck of cards stacked against her. With Bipolar and Limerance from maternal side and paranoia from paternal side it is like trying to unravel a labyrinth of chicken and egg so this mother can try her very best to help her daughter. The black and white thinking of BPD and complete obsession with her current boyfriend that they can do no wrong ( despite being a complete pos) made me think of linerance.
Thank you for your consideration of my question
Hi Meredith Ann,
Sorry to hear that your daughter will have to fight these battles. Your question comes up from time to time at LwL, and the honest answer is that nobody really knows. There isn’t any direct research into limerence and other mental/personality disorders. There are some obvious analogies to other conditions like OCD, bipolar or ADHD, but there are also some obvious differences.
My reading of the situation is that limerence can certainly exist independently of these other conditions, but there may be some overlap in tendencies. Ultimately, limerence is another challenge to add to any pre-existing issues – a double whammy.
Here are a couple of posts that cover the question:
Thank you so much for your reply and reference
I will check out the link and continue my own research into mental illness and mental wellness
Limerent Emeritus says
What makes you think you daughter might be exhibiting symptoms of BPD? Has she been evaluated by a professional? Many professionals aren’t all that savvy when dealing with personality disorders.
If you want to go after the physiological string, there are ways to do that but they can be time consuming and expensive.
10 years ago, my son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Serotonin and the pancreas are related. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2760753/#:~:text=The%20authors%20found%20that%20serotonin,this%20reaction%2C%20reducing%20insulin%20secretion.&text=The%20model%20that%20emerges%20from,in%20response%20to%20elevated%20glucose.)
He developed crippling anxiety and depression to the point of multiple hospitalizations and calling the police for violent behavior. We went through 4 psychiatrists and twice that number of therapists to help him. We had genetic testing done to see what would work and what wouldn’t. Some treatment options were off the table since they caused his blood sugar to be uncontrollable. One psychiatrist put him on Lithium and he had a breakdown on the freeway. Wrong drug. His endocrinologist was useless except for controlling the diabetes.
We were fortunate enough to find a holistic psychiatrist that knew how to look for root causes. She ran a lot of non-standard [read, “not covered by insurance”] tests and his chemical plant was really out of whack. Standard treatments didn’t work and therapists couldn’t reach him because his brain chemistry was that screwed up. They were trying. She weaned him off all the psychoactive drugs but one, put him on a regimen of specific supplements, and he’s coming around. It’s taking time but the improvement is nothing short of miraculous.
My point is there are avenues to explore to see if there is a reason behind the behavior that you can do something about. There may be answers and there may not be. One less encouraging thing was Western medicine is stove-piped and protocol driven. Endos know what they know and follow their protocols. Psychiatrists know what they know and follow their protocol. Therapists are the same way.
Nobody will love your daughter like you do. Sometimes, our son was a willing ally and sometimes he fought us tooth and nail.
But, in the end when he hit, he did everything we asked of him and the efforts are beginning to pay off for him. Since your daughter is a minor, depending on where you live, you still have some control over her.
I wish you the best.
“I’ve previously argued that OCD and limerence are different in a critical way – limerence emerges from euphoria and reward-seeking behaviour, rather than fear and anxiety.
Antidepressants have very little utility for treating addiction.”
I have some thoughts I’d like to share, which may not be strictly on topic, as this blog entry focuses on the brain chemicals at play in limerence. However, I’d like to touch on the cultural and environmental factors that feed into addiction… I just want to kick around a few seemingly unrelated ideas, and see whether they link up or not… 😛
I came up with this line of inquiry after “vulnerability” came up in a recent exchange with fellow blog-reader Marcia. 😛
I believe that the dominant emotion behind addiction is often shame. (Educator John Bradshaw’s books explore this theme in some detail). In a nutshell, human beings turn to addiction as a way of avoiding shame.
In Western culture, men are often shamed for having vulnerable feelings. (I.e. is he a real man? Is he even able to protect his family?). Women, on the other hand, are often shamed for strong negative emotions such as anger. (I.e. she’s not feminine enough. She’s not a nice person. She’s “too much”/attention-seeking).
I wonder if there is a link between limerence and taboo emotions? Or at least emotions that are taboo for certain sexes/genders in Western culture? That is to say, might men sometimes use limerence as a way to “numb” themselves against deep (and culturally unacceptable) feelings of vulnerability? Might women sometimes use limerence as a way to “numb” themselves to forbidden rage boiling away at the very core of their being, which they’re not allowed to access?
I’m an extremely eloquent, self-possessed gay man, and even I feel uncomfortable around so-called “angry women”. Angry women make me want to run away. And yet anger is a perfectly normal human emotion for both sexes… 😉
I believe some emotions in Western culture are gendered. E.g. an angry man is a man in charge whereas an angry woman is just hysterical/a basket case/mentally unstable. A vulnerable woman is sensitive/spiritual and a great mother, whereas a vulnerable man is pathetic, and of no use whatsoever to his spouse and kids.
When human beings aren’t allow to feel certain things, especially in childhood, that sets the stage for shame. And shame in childhood eventually sets the stage for addictive behaviours in adulthood. Limerence is a behavioural addiction. Maybe some people turn to limerence because it’s a less obviously offensive addiction than, say, addiction to alcohol? 🤔
I felt so good after I had my little chat about vulnerability with Marcia. It was like I needed a woman to give me “permission” (or give me the emotional space) to be vulnerable before I could allow myself to feel vulnerable. I couldn’t “feel the feelings” without permission from the opposite sex. Such “permission to be vulnerable” should ideally come from one’s own mother at critical points in child development. However, my own mother never gave me permission to be vulnerable and I ended up suppressing my vulnerable side indefinitely. Such suppression led to depression in my teens, and later despair in adulthood.
I think many a Western woman really needs a man in her life (preferably her father or her male partner) to give her permission to be angry, to own her feelings of indignation. When I was a little boy, I thought my mother was crazy. She seemed to be in a continual state of near-hysteria. She never really calmed down. Now I’m an adult man, I see my mother wasn’t crazy or hysterical per se. She was most likely angry at my father, (and other men in her life), yet she could never express that anger in a constructive way. Since she could never express her anger openly, she could never be at peace with herself, and the household was always tense as a result.
Time for a paradox: I think power and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. A man can’t be truly powerful until he lays claim to his weakness and made friends with his vulnerable side. Maybe the same is true of women regarding anger? If a woman remains cuts off from her anger, eventually she will become cut off from her loving feelings too. She will become that unpleasant (i.e. spiteful, passive-aggressive) person other people so often accuse her of being. 😉
What we so often have in Western marriage is a man who’s numb to his vulnerable feelings, a woman who’s numb to her anger, and then a man and a woman who wonder why they’re so bored with life and bored with each other, and why the marriage is so unsatisfying and lacking in intimacy. Sometimes, the couple may divorce. Sometimes, limerence for someone outside the marriage may develop.
None of this relates very much to serotonin levels directly. But, maybe, in a very roundabout way, all these elements influence what’s going on in the brain? 😛
P.S. I’m a bit of a comedian. However, I’ve just realised I probably use comedy sometimes in an unhealthy way i.e. to stave off feelings of vulnerability, which could lead to greater connection, and very occasionally to express anger. I realise I resort to comedy so often because I’m still fleeing from “culturally-taboo-for-males” vulnerability. 🤔
Now let’s put these insights into a heteronormative context:
Let’s say we have a man who’s not allowed to feel his vulnerable feelings. What’s the next best thing for him? Maybe fantasies about rescuing someone who is allowed to be vulnerable? Maybe, oh I dunno, a beautiful damsel in distress?
Let’s say we have a woman who’s not allowed to seek power. What’s the next best thing for her? Maybe pairing up with a powerful man? Or dreaming about that powerful man lavishing her with attention? Then she’s powerful by association…
Limerence is about brain chemicals, obviously. But it’s also about wish fulfilment.😉
Sammy – thanks for this, thought provoking
“When human beings aren’t allow to feel certain things, especially in childhood, that sets the stage for shame. And shame in childhood eventually sets the stage for addictive behaviours in adulthood. Limerence is a behavioural addiction. Maybe some people turn to limerence because it’s a less obviously offensive addiction than, say, addiction to alcohol?”
And going back to where Reader started, @reader
Just where I’m at. When ever I get stressed, (which I do by nature, always have done) my brain reaches for the warm thoughts of LO. Fighting it most days, it seems the New Year is a bad time for us? But recognising it has helped me reduce it and look for other less toxic methods of soothing.
I’ve also purged everything, phone, laptop, desktop, everywhere, it’s a good strategy, the stuff in my head can and will fade, those digital mementos are virtually indestructible.
Longtime lurker first time poster. First off Dr. L thank you so much for all of these articles! I have learned so much about myself and purposeful living and unhealed childhood trauma. when limerence hit me I needed an emergency session with my therapist and it was serotonin that saved me from my thoughts. I have never experienced limerence before or ruminating thoughts so I was caught off guard, it was an ambush to say the least… nothing I wanted at all…both LO and I are married and because of the nature of our relationship it would have been unethical if anything happened but that didn’t stop me from trying which brings me to my next point…who the hell am I ? I was the person who despised cheaters and would not tolerate cheating under any circumstance and one person changes that…how? I read an article that said limerence doesn’t change you but I dont recognize the person I am now. It’s so far from the person I was before.
@Palgal, you said that serotonin saved you from your thoughts? How did you get serotonin and how do you even take it? I’m curious because it’s been said low serotonin levels cause limerence, and I was weaning off of an anti-depressant drug when limerence caught me blind sided. They say stopping the meds can cause low serotonin so I often wonder if increasing my serotonin could rid me of the limerence. It is the one and only person this ever happened with. Thanks.
I hope you get an answer to your question. I thought you might like to know that you are not alone. I was able to quit using antidepressants when I had frequent contact with my LO2. But it did lead to a bad case of limerence.