When Lauren,* 29, developed a crush on a coworker, she started going into the office not just on time, but early. Lauren, a self-proclaimed chronically late person who works in human resources in Washington, DC, tells SELF that only the presence of a morning-person crush who “did not give a fuck” about her could get her up and out the door that way. For all her effort, here’s how their interactions went: “I would wait for him to get coffee, and then I would walk over 48 seconds later to also get coffee, but not talk to him, just to make him aware I was alive and at work early,” she says.
Having a crush is wild like that. You’ve probably done something similar and had to ask yourself questions like, “Why am I posting the most inane Instagram stories (fine: memes I think they would like) 16 hours a day just to keep checking to see if they’ve watched?” Or, “Why am I reading their grandfather’s PhD dissertation on JSTOR when I should be grocery shopping?” (Or whatever other unhingery you participate in when you’re crushed out.) And while you might know logically that the excitement and novelty of a crush makes us act bizarrely…why does it feel as overwhelming as it does, exactly? To find out the scientific reasons behind the mental agony/ecstasy that is having a crush, SELF turned to experts for (weirdly comforting) answers. If you can tear your brain off the hot person terrorizing it for a few minutes: Here’s what’s going on in your lovesick mind.
What’s happening, scientifically speaking, in my body when I’m fixating on a crush?
You can thank a variety of chemical reactions for the cascading feelings of desire, self-consciousness, and longing that you’re going through. These reactions all start with oxytocin, Lamont Moss, MD, a psychiatrist at Colorado Permanente Medical Group in Denver, tells SELF. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide associated with romantic and sexual attraction. It can increase the amount of dopamine, a neurotransmitter and hormone known to be involved with concentration and excitement, that’s released in the brain, which leads you to feel more focused on a particular stimulus: in this case, your crush. So if you can’t stop thinking about somebody cute despite your best efforts, that’s oxytocin.
“Oxytocin releases dopamine, dopamine makes us release endorphins, and those endorphins make us feel good,” Dr. Moss explains, and this can look like “blood vessels in our body opening up so we end up blushing” or downright “feeling a bit of euphoria.” If you’ve ever felt like an all-consuming crush is marionetting your little puppet strings—instead of you being in control of those feelings—it’s because dopamine is making you a fool for love. “Dopamine can motivate us to do certain things,” Dr. Moss explains. In the case of a crush, you might want to be near the person of your desire because your body wants you to keep that euphoria going for as long as possible. (Hence Lauren’s sudden promptness at the office—and more on this in a bit.)
Okay, that sounds kind of pleasant! However: I actually feel like having a crush is torture. Explain that, scientists!!
While dopamine and endorphins are generally known as “happy” chemicals, there’s also a good reason why crushing hard can feel a bit anxiety-inducing. Serotonin and adrenaline are at play, Kate Truitt, PhD, MA, MBA, a licensed clinical psychologist and applied neuroscientist in Pasadena, California, tells SELF. Fluctuating serotonin levels can lead to mood swings. Add in the uncertainty and fear of possible rejection that comes with new-crush territory, and your amygdala, the region critical for emotional processing, becomes more active. “This keeps you in a state of heightened alertness and anxiety, which can further contribute to the destabilizing sensation,” Dr. Truitt says, Basically: It’s giving fight or flight.