What happens in our brain when we go through a breakup
One of the hardest parts of getting over my ex was dealing with the positive memories that would hit me out of nowhere as I was going about my day, whether it was a jingle from a commercial he’d always sing to me or walking past one of the brunch spots that used to be “ours”.
In fact, the whole breakup would’ve been much easier if his false accusations and constant attacks on my character were what came to mind instead. But as Travis McNulty, LMHC, a therapist practicing in Florida explains, that’s unfortunately not how the chemical process of falling in and out of love works. “For the duration of your relationship your monogamous brain has identified this person as your spouse,” McNulty says.
“We’re biologically hardwired to reproduce, so there is a strong bio-chemical reaction that ensues from seeing your ‘spouse’ that releases powerful neurotransmitters that make us feel good.” So basically, going through a breakup is like trying to quit a drug cold turkey. “When your brain conceptualizes that your partner is no longer with you, grief sets in,” says McNulty.
“Your mind no longer releases the feel-good chemicals (oxytocin and dopamine) that it once released every time you saw this person.” All of which leads to that sick feeling in your stomach. “For most of us, our shift in focus leads us to behaviors that are uncharacteristic and even ‘crazy’ trying to win that person back — even when we logically know they’re not good for us.”
5 ways to get your mind right after a breakup
Once you’ve spent a few nights in with your junk food of choice, it’s time to start moving forward. Here are five steps to starting over after a breakup that’ll have you feeling like your old self again.
- Talk about your breakup — but make sure it’s a constructive conversation.
Telling the story of your breakup can be cathartic, especially if you’re sharing it with a group of people who have also gone through a similar experience. But if it continues to be the only topic of conversation for weeks afterward, it could be detrimental to your recovery process. “If you continue to lament about the relationship, you can become trapped in your story,” Sabla explains. “You may find yourself in victim mode and have trouble moving on.
” Tell the story once, then seek guidance from your group of peers to help you move forward. “Engage the group with questions about steps they have taken [after a breakup] — and don’t just ask about what they have found helpful,” Sabla recommends. “Was there anything they did that made it harder to get over their breakup?” Hindsight is 20/20, so take advantage of theirs to make your process easier.
- Socialize with a supportive group of friends.
If the idea of facing a large group of friends or family seems too daunting, start with the one you feel most comfortable with (who also have a knack for getting you out of the house). “Socializing, even when you don’t want to, gives you a change of scenery, the opportunity to meet someone new and a reason to put on pants and comb your hair,” says Sabla. “Many times we dread going out, then once we are there we remember how much we enjoy it.” Post-breakup, your brain is craving those feel-good chemicals that you used to get from spending time with your ex. So get out and relax, laugh a little and spend time with the people in your life who make you happy (who you probably didn’t see enough of during your relationship).
- Beware of social media.
Going through a breakup in a time where your ex’s whereabouts are just a few clicks away adds another layer of confusion. How you handle the situation really depends on how things ended between you, and the network you share. Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., a therapist practicing in Florida suggests being honest with yourself about two questions: Will it bother me if my ex knows what I’m up to? Will I be tempted to cyberstalk my ex if we remain connected socially? If yes, it’s probably best to end the relationship online as well. Also, keep in mind that social media is where we put our best selves forward, which can be hard to witness when a breakup is fresh. Seeing photos of your ex looking happy doesn’t mean they’ve gotten over you so easily — or that you’re behind in the process — but it can feel that way. Which is why it is a smart idea to hide their updates at the very least, if you can’t quite bring yourself to “unfriend” them altogether.
- Write down what you learned from the relationship.
One of the most important things my ex taught me was how to fight fair — by doing the exact opposite of that throughout our relationship. Making a physical list of what you’ve learned from a relationship not only reinforces reasons why you weren’t a good fit but helps give you a better picture of the type of partner you’re most compatible with. “Spend a healthy amount of time in self-reflection so that you can examine what it truly is that you didn’t like about your ex,” says McNulty. “Did they make me someone I’m not? What did I compromise that made me resent them? What did I like about them? What am I looking for in the future?”
- Practice gratitude.
After a breakup that forced me to move back into my parent’s basement, my father told me, “I know you’re sad now, but happiness is a choice. You can to choose to be happy.” Some days that was harder to do than others, but realizing I had agency over how I was feeling — even while mourning the loss of a relationship — was a revelation to me at the time. “When you spend your day looking for something positive, your mood and overall outlook changes for the better,” says Hakim. “You spend more time appreciating the beauty of the world around you and less time focusing on the breakup.”
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