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 Kaiser Permanente 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.
Along the same lines, Dr. Truitt explains, your body’s stress response can rear up in the midst of a crush: You’ll likely release hormones like cortisol, a.k.a. the stress hormone. If you’ve ever developed a crush that disrupts your attention and focus, or causes you difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite: This might be why.
Not to mention that when we’re crushing, there’s always some degree of idealization going on, according to Dr. Truitt. We might attribute qualities to the object of our affections that aren’t based in reality, which can potentially lead to disappointment. This in and of itself can be a feel-bad hamster wheel, but it also further activates the amygdala into a stress response. Dr. Truitt refers to this kind of anxiety as the “‘what ifs’…of doom,” which can sound something like, “What if they’re not as great as I’ve made them out to be in my head? What if, after three months together, he turns into a completely different person? What if he only rides a motorcycle—am I okay with riding to work on the back?” (This last one was a pressing concern for Lauren as she planned her fantasy life with her coworker, who had a bike.)
Why is it so hard to feel control over crush-y feelings?
The rush of chemical reactions to crushing out can be so intense that Dr. Moss compares it to drinking water from a firehose: simply too much at once. “It’s not sustainable,” he says. If your bodies were nursing the feelings of a crush 24/7, you’d be exhausted.
These feelings can be so strong that they might physically even make you feel dizzy, Dr. Moss says. “It’s a huge rush, and it does feel good, so there’s definitely that motivation to want to maintain it and keep reproducing it,” he explains. We want to find out what songs, food, shows, sports, and other interests that our crush likes so that we can connect with them, bring them physically closer to us, and keep those warm, fuzzy brain machinations chugging along.
This means that even when your crush isn’t physically near you, you might feel the urge to stay connected with them in some way. Anything to keep those gushy feelings on repeat in your body! For Hannah, 28, a social media manager in Los Angeles, this meant finding something in common with her crush: doing the full (not even the mini!) New York Times crossword daily. For Danielle, a 32-year-old New York City–based beauty editor, it meant buying language courses after she discovered her crush had Italian heritage. And for Lauren, it meant organizing a meeting at a restaurant with friends for a crush summit, specifically to discuss tactics to “seduce his heart,” as she puts it. All this might help explain why you’re more likely to do stuff like go through your crush’s entire public Spotify playlist, when a more mentally stable version of you simply would never dedicate 20-plus hours to analyzing the entire Tame Impala discography.
David Tzall, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York, tells SELF that being unsure of your and your crush’s feelings can put you in a constant state of anticipation. If you’ve ever stayed up all night replaying the same four-second scenario by the water cooler, you get it.
The chemical reaction of crushing can be independent of anything that the object of our affection is actually doing, Dr. Moss explains, so they can feel overpowering even if our interactions with the person we like are minimal (or even nonexistent).
By focusing so intently on this person, you might trigger changes in your neurotransmitter levels, Dr. Tzall adds. More dopamine might be released every time you think about or interact with your crush, with the surge leading to heightened emotional responses, making you feel exhilarated or anxious. Basically, the more you think about them, the stronger your feelings are likely to become. The person you’re into might be able to kickstart this response in you, but the things that you’re doing (playlist stalking, casually checking their Instagram profile for the umpteenth time today) are behind maintaining the crush.
If you do hook up with your crush, you can expect these feelings to be even more intense. Not only because sex feels good—there's also the fact that getting together with them offers a possibility of more feel-good sex down the line, which might further cloud your judgment, according to Dr. Moss.
How can I get off this ride? When will this feeling go away?
While the best of us can nurse a crush for years (read: me, on any man who doesn’t care if I live or die), eventually the feelings fade. It’s partially because you simply can’t maintain the firehose-level of chemical responses happening to our bodies long-term, and also partially because you get accustomed to them. The more you see or hang out with our crush, the less exciting it is each time.
Even if it works out with the person you’re obsessed with, the feelings of a crush eventually peak, Dr. Moss explains. Say your crush eventually turns into love. While both are warm and fuzzy, love feelings and crush feelings aren’t quite the same. The same oxytocin- and dopamine-based chemical reactions are happening—just at a lower, more stable level when you’re in love. This makes the feelings less brain-hijacking and more sustainable so you can maintain them over time and not go completely off the rails. Think of it like when you’re Zillowing your crush’s childhood home. Once you’ve actually been to Old Saybrook, Connecticut? It’s a lot less exciting and fun.
In all: “The response is similar to a drug,” Dr. Moss explains. “You get desensitized to it when it doesn’t elicit the same effect from you as you get exposed to it more often.”
How can I act more level-headed when I’m crushing?
Take a step back and assess the situation through a non-judgmental lens. “Understand that at the basic level, crushes are perfectly okay,” Dr. Moss says. Once you accept that they’re normal, you can try to enjoy these feelings—even the blushing, even the nervousness.
As Dr. Moss cautions: Don’t let your crush make your decisions for you. Know that even the strongest crush is temporary and you shouldn’t, let’s say, make any big changes, like moving cities, in the hot pursuit of more happy brain chemicals. It’s fine to enjoy the feeling that looking at life through rose-colored glasses gives you, but don’t let yourself walk into a manhole.
If you’ve already done some harmless but embarrassing things in a crushed-out fugue state: That’s cute! Don’t worry too much if you’re like Sia, 35, a Connecticut-based analyst who constantly checks her crush’s private Instagram account just to look at his little profile picture. Remember that there’s actually a chemical, biological force behind those urges, Dr. Moss says. Acting cringe in the pursuit of feeling good is what makes us human.
As for Lauren’s work dreamboat? “We never hung out outside of work a single time,” she says. So many of the feelings behind a crush are only our own damn selves, which is a testament to the fact that we’re capable of some pretty cool emotional and physical responses, even without bringing anyone else into the romantic picture for real. “I’ve never been down so bad for a man in my life,” Lauren says, laughing. Now she’s even able to admit: She was relieved she never had to get on a motorcycle in reality.
*Some names have been changed or abbreviated for privacy reasons.
Originally Appeared on SELF