Breaking up is hard to do. That Neil Sedaka really knows his stuff. Breakups are painful, stressful, and rarely can you make it through a breakup looking or feeling your best. There have been songs about it. There are books about it and movies about it (turns out even Jennifer Aniston gets flustered amidst a tough breakup). It’s never easy, often emotionally draining and typically traumatic to go through heartbreak of any kind. But just because you and your romantic partner break up doesn’t mean you need to fully breakdown.
The end of a relationship can also be the start of something new — something better. It’s all about perspective. And it’s also all about having the right tools and support system in place to help you survive a breakup relatively unscathed.
Why Are Breakups So Damn Hard?
In order to truly wrap our heads around how to deal with a breakup, it’s important to understand why breakups are so hard. Think of it this way: if someone close to you passes away, you grieve. You mourn that loss and you try to comprehend a life without that person in it. You imagine days without being able to talk to that person, without spending time together or confiding in one another. And suddenly you realize that your sadness and pain revolves around the empty space where that individual used to be.
While a breakup isn’t exactly of the same caliber and it’s not quite as permanent as death, there are several similarities. With a breakup you are confronted with a loss, and even if that person is still on this planet, they are no longer in your universe, and the ramifications of that loss can be devastating.
Another helpful metaphor: think of a breakup as dealing with a drug addiction. Something (or in this case someone) that you once depended on regularly to help sustain, fulfill and satisfy you is longer there to bring you joy. And just like with any other addiction, you might go through a period of withdrawal where that lack of contact (physical and emotional) leads to physiological pain and health issues. Symptoms like insomnia, loss of appetite, physical pain, lack of energy and depression are all common after a breakup. If you’re nodding your head then we take it you’ve been there, and the good news is there’s nothing wrong with you, and you’re not alone.
Breakups can cause real trauma and legitimate pain, both emotional and physical. But once you come out on the other side, breakups can also lead to growth, reinvention, self-love and ultimately real joy.
The Science Behind a Bad Breakup
If you’re wondering why a breakup feels so damn painful, there’s actual scientific evidence to prove that the pain is real.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) suggests that our brains respond to emotional and physical pain in similar ways, activating the same areas of the brain when exposed to social rejection and physical pain. The study’s researchers compared functional MRI scans from two scenarios: one taken while subjects who recently went through an unwanted breakup were looking at pictures of their ex; another while subjects were exposed to heat that caused pain described as nearly “unbearable.” After comparing those MRI scans the results show that the same network of brain regions became activated in both scenarios. “These results give new meaning to the idea that rejection “hurts,” according to the study. The findings demonstrate that rejection and physical pain are far more similar than we ever realized, and that if you feel like you are in physical pain after a breakup, you’re not crazy. Your brain agrees with you.
Another shocking scientific discovery: heartbreak can actually cause a broken heart. Broken heart syndrome, officially known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, is a rare heart condition with symptoms that can mimic those of a heart attack. Experts believe that this condition is triggered by a sudden rush of adrenaline and hormones, such as the response to a bad breakup and emotional loss. “Any kind of sudden stress response can cause weakening of heart muscle, whether its sudden fear —– someone holding a gun to your head — or the distress your body goes through in the middle of a bad infection or stroke,” explains Dr. Ilan Wittstein, MD, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
While broken heart syndrome is still relatively rare, it does happen and cases seem to be on the rise. Dr. Wittstein estimates that 2% of all people thought to be having a heart attack actually have broken heart syndrome, and among older, postmenopausal women, that number goes up to 5% to 7%.
So what can you do to help ease the pain of a breakup, and move on like a total boss even after a devastating heartbreak? While we can’t promise the results will happen overnight, and it will certainly take some time, patience, support and effort to make it through the post-breakup blues, it will happen, and these tips and tools can help.
Surround Yourself With the Right Support
First of all, remember that while you might feel alone and lonely (which are two very different feelings but often come together and hit you like a tractor trailer of pain) you do not have to deal with a breakup on your own. Seek out support from loved ones, friends, family and especially from those who have been there before. Remember that everyone you know has experienced a break-up or rejection of some kind before, so don’t be shy to ask for advice, to vent to them, to seek comfort in that mutual pain and most importantly gain perspective from their stories of survival.
Similarly, if you have a friend who is going through a tough breakup, be proactive and offer them support before they even ask for help. According to Theresa E DiDonato Ph.D., the number one thing you can do is to “remind your friend of all that you love about him or her…Call and text, and make sure your mutual friends are reaching out as well.” It’s important to be there, just as you would want others to be there for you during a hard time. That friendship and quality time with loved ones will also help you to build new memories and rebuild your self-concept, so that you can move on from that breakup. Plan girls’ nights, schedule regular family dinners, bury yourself in hobbies and social activities with friends or colleagues and remind yourself that you are not alone.
Talk About It
More often than not a breakup is followed by incessant amounts of Taylor Swift music, tears, social media stalking, and a whole lot of talking about your relationship. Every tearful sentence will end with a story about your ex, or will turn into a rant about how much he/she sucked. And while some people might argue that spending time harping on the past is unhealthy, or can prevent you from moving forward, it can also be argued that talking about your breakup is a healthy step in the healing process.
A study published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal found that, while talking too much about a breakup or wallowing in that experience for too long can be detrimental to your wellbeing, talking about it to a certain extent can be healthy and helpful. The study found that reflecting on a recent breakup can help speed the healing process.
After years of studying the effects of heartbreak, Grace Larson, a graduate student in social psychology at Northwestern University, started to investigate the effects of talking about a romantic split on an individual’s ability to recover from that breakup. She studied 210 volunteers who had recently experienced a breakup, asking half of them to regularly answer questions about the breakup, while the other half only answers two simple surveys at the beginning and end of the study. What she found was that regularly discussing the breakup helped those people better process their breakup and “it helped them develop a stronger sense of who they were as single people,” explains Larson. Ultimately, that ability to talk about and process the breakup helped those individuals feel less lonely and ready to move on.
Bottom line: talking about your breakup and your newly single status can actually help you move on from a state of loss and grief to a more self-aware and comfortable place of healing.
Don’t Fall Back On Bad Habits
Let’s say you’ve been dating your significant other for several months/years and then poof, one day it’s just over. Of course you try to move on, you work through your sadness and you emotionally prepare yourself to meet someone new (or to enjoy time for yourself). But inevitably, the emotional and physical pull of the person you were happily attached to for so long is just too strong to resist. And so, you find your way back to them, even if it’s just for a night, and even if it goes against everything your gut is telling you. It’s understandable that you might fall back into your old routines and revert back to old habits. You’re only human. We all gravitate to what is familiar and comforting especially in times of pain or loneliness. But remember that you broke up for a reason. Whether it was unwanted on your end or initiated by you, the relationship ended because something was not right. Something was missing, someone treated the other person badly, love was lacking, there was not mutual respect… whatever the reason for the breakup, remember that there was a reason.
Think of a relationship as an addiction and a breakup as you quitting that drug. While you heal from a breakup, you are detoxing. It’s impossible to detox if that person is still around. Don’t try to bargain with yourself of excuse all that went wrong just so you can justify a reunion or another attempt to make that relationship work. If you do continue to fall back into those old habits and try to reconcile, chances are that reality will eventually come crashing down and it won’t end well again (and again).
Instead, try to keep your distance from your ex during this post-breakup healing period. Don’t try to be friends, don’t reach out to reconnect or seek comfort in one another. Give yourself time to heal on your own and remember why you broke up in the first place.
Feel Your Feelings
It’s as simple as this — whatever you are feeling, allow yourself to feel all of it. Sadness. Anger. Exhilaration. Confusion. Sorrow. Joy. Whatever feelings hit you during your healing process, allow yourself to feel them completely and don’t be ashamed of however you feel. Even if your ex is the absolute biggest jerk off in the world, you might still grieve when they are gone. That’s okay. Or maybe you’ll feel ecstatic and free once you breakup, even if the relationship had wonderful moments. That’s okay too. Embracing your emotions is an important step in the healing process, and it’s a chance to learn about yourself as well.
Take It One Day at a Time
Above all, remember that getting over a breakup takes time. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually, you will feel better and experience happiness again. The saying goes that you can’t appreciate joy without sorrow. You need the pain to appreciate pleasure. And this is completely true when it comes to a breakup. The breakup is your sorrow, but the happiness you will find once you reinvent your life and reprioritize what you need and what matters to you is the joy. You will get there, and you will feel more fulfilled and happy than ever before, but it will take some time, energy and effort to reach that point. Don’t rush it and don’t lose hope. Just take it one day at a time, doing one small thing each day to focus on your physical, emotional and mental well-being. Exercise, get a lot of sleep, reconnect with friends and loved ones, try a new hobby, eat well, travel, read, meditate and give back to others. Be gentle with yourself and be patient, and eventually, you’ll realize that you are happier, healthier and more grounded than you have ever been.