Heal From Your Breakup: How Neuroscience Can Help

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Breaking Up Sucks!  Your heart aches, your thoughts spiral, you don’t want to eat, leave your darkened room or do many of the things you need to do just to get through your day and keep from losing your livelihood. 

We all know breaking up sucks just from having been through it, but neuroscience has recently given us a leg-up on recovering from the heart-sickness that comes from losing someone you love and have been attached to.  I’ve written a guest blog-post on Medium with other breakup advice, but keep reading for my latest thoughts.

What happens when you break-up?

When you fall in love and get attached to someone new, all kinds of feel-good neurochemicals and hormones are activated in your body and brain.  These neurological factors translate into the experience of being psychologically, emotionally and physiologically ATTACHED to another person.

So, its no minor event when you get torn away from that person.  The attachment isn’t just in your head, it’s also in your body.  It’s kind of like if your skin or a body part were to be torn off or removed from the rest of you.  When someone you’ve loved and has become part of your life and part of your daily psychological, physiological, and emotional experience it’s excruciating.

Your pain isn’t just imagined, it’s (literally) in your head.

Neuroscience validates this pain.  According to Xioameng Xu in a report in the Scientific American, fMRI studies have shown that the pain and heartache experienced during a break up activate the some of the same regions of the brain activated when we are in physical pain.  In other words, it’s not just in your mind, the pain is evident and measurable in your body and brain.  Your brain is reading and responding to real pain.

Other fMRI studies have shown us that physical contact with a loving partner relieves and reduces the brain’s perception and our experience of physical pain. This study shows that the pain from the loss of a romantic partner ignites the same areas in the brain as physical pain.

Going through withdrawals is a bitch.

In addition to that, areas of the brain that we refer to as the reward centers are affected.  These areas are involved when experiencing the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine and heroin, or the experience of falling and being in love.  Similar to the physical and psychological pain experienced during chemical and substance withdrawal, when you’re going through a break up, your brain and body (not just your “feelings”) are experiencing a deficit of the usual neurochemicals present when you are connected, attached and connected to your partner.

So how can you use this information to help get through a break up? 

  1. Give yourself a break.  Find ways to soothe and comfort yourself; you’re going through a physiologically demanding and painful process. You’d take it easy and get support and be gentler with yourself if you had a broken leg, try and do the same with your broken heart.

  2. It won’t last forever, though it feels that way.  Know that though this experience may feel like it will never get better, part of what you are experiencing is physiological and chemical withdrawal from someone you loved and relied on.  It is a process that will peak and settle, just like an ocean wave.  This wave of pain and heartache will eventually subside and reach the shore.  You will start to feel better after these waves have run their course.

  3. Get through the waves.  Navigate these waves with some tools: 

    • Connect with others that will help you get human connection.

    • Exercise or do physical activity.  Getting your heartrate up and be active helps your body process the stress hormones that are part of the heartache.  It can also help your brain chemistry regain equilibrium and balance.

    • Processing the break up is healthy and helpful, but if you get overwhelmed too much of the time, push pause.  Your body needs to re-regulate.  Sometimes it may help to stop thinking about the person.  You can gently tell yourself, “I care about you so I’m going to protect you from feeling overwhelmed and hopeless for a little while.  We are not going to think about him/her.”

    • Catch “romanticizing” your ex.  It’s easy to get pulled into a state where you are only remembering the “good” things about them and for the life of you, can’t remember any of the “bad” things.  This isn’t reality.  They weren’t all good and they aren’t your source of goodness. You are.  Try connecting with some of the things that weren’t perfect to balance out your perspective.

I know breaking up aches and can be totally overwhelming.  I’ve been through my share too.  I’d love to hear if these ideas are helpful OR where you get stuck! Feel free to leave a comment below, drop me an email, or if you want some help getting through the waves - feel free to call me for a free 15 minute phone consultation at (415) 797-8297.  I am San Francisco’s resident dating therapist helping successful singles create the love and life that they want.