We’ve all gone through a tough relationship breakup at some point or another, and many of us have gone through a divorce. Most of the time, they just aren’t an easy thing to go through. They’re painful and they hurt. We may feel rejected and broken, or we may feel terrible about having hurt someone we truly care about but just can’t be with. They can shake us to our very foundations.
Unfortunately, some people are much more affected than others by a breakup. Human brains are wired by evolution to “see” an intimate relationships as super important. They are our primary human mammal method for “mating” and procreating. We are hard-wired to value our intimate relationships and make them a priority. If they end, especially unexpectedly, we’re left reeling with a void in our lives and our minds.
Love and Addiction
Evolutionary Psychology and FMRI Brain Research even shows that being in love is really very much like having an addiction. When we’re in love the same brain circuitry is activated (and lights up on an FMRI!) as when we use cocaine! We actually get addicted to love, to being with our partner — and when they leave — it leaves us much like an addict without their drug. We actually go through love withdrawals! This also may explain why some people lose their appetites, lose large amounts of weight, get physically ill, feel exhausted and even develop anxiety disorders or clinical depression from a relationship loss.
Some people end up suffering a great deal after a breakup. A sudden or unexpected divorce or a high conflict breakup can even end up giving a person symptoms that are much like what happens after a trauma. People who experience a traumatic event in their lives will quite often react with feelings of shock, anger, nervousness, fear, grief, sadness and even guilt/shame. For most people, these common reactions will go away over time, but for someone experiencing severe post breakup distress, the feelings and negative emotions can continue to be present and maybe even escalate until the person has difficulty living their normal life.
The Symptoms of Breakup Distress
The symptoms of break up distress are many. Feeling like you’ve been kicked in the stomach and you can’t catch your breath, or feeling like you’ve been knocked down and can’t get up. There can be feelings of being rejected. Feelings of self doubt and shame are common. You may feel like you’re not good enough or feel less than others, or that maybe something is wrong with you. We may feel stuck and unable to let go or move on. We may have high feelings of arousal, an over awareness of our thoughts, emotions and even bodily sensations. There may be high anxiety levels, insomnia, a cognitive fog/trouble focusing and maybe even feeling hyper-vigilant (a feeling of being always on guard). This can also be feeling like you’re continuously stressed and edgy and every little thing gets to you.
People going through a breakup or divorce may remove themselves from the people or situations that are similar in some way to the traumatic break up event. People often feel or become detached from their loved ones and lose interest in their previous interests and passions. They may also avoid social situations or other stressful things.
People who have recently been rejected may also develop develop an obsessive anxiety kind of thinking. They may ruminate endlessly (think about over and over again) about their ex, about how badly and empty they are feeling, and how much they’ve lost and how will they ever go on?!?!
It’s also really hard because when we go through a break up, we’re left in a place where our entire future has now changed. We have to picture ourselves single and without the supportive person who has been super important and a daily constant in our life. This can bring up lots of fear and anxiety thoughts. We can feel like we have to make up a whole new life!
These thoughts and feelings of loss may be triggered by places you used to go to with your ex, people you used to hang out together with, weekends and holidays can be particularly hard, and even simple everyday rituals that you shared can create emotional pain. If your ex is the person who made coffee every morning, making coffee for yourself is a constant reminder of your loss every morning! Experiencing a hard breakup is really quite a bit like dealing with any other kind of life trauma. You try to get on with life, you try to avoid the negative thoughts that cause you emotional pain and really try to find ways to keep yourself busy. And then sometimes you’ll also feel like you’re flooded by intense, sad, painful thoughts and memories and feelings. You may even find yourself in fearful or anxious obsessive feelings and thoughts. It can be a real emotional roller coaster!
Is it Affecting Your Life? A Lot?
In extreme situations some people may even feel like they are reliving/feeling the traumatic experience over and over again in their minds. This may include nightmares or flashbacks of the break up. This might also be constant unwanted thinking about the details of the breakup, sometimes even in an obsessive way. It can be like having unwanted feelings and thoughts in our head that just keep spinning and looping without any relief.
If you feel like you’re experiencing a number of these kinds of these symptoms or they are very severe and really affecting your life; or if you’re experiencing super high anxiety, obsessive thoughts, or you’re feeling really down and depressed — if you’re really suffering? First of all, I’m sorry that’s happening to you, secondly, it may be really important and helpful to speak to a mental health professional like a psychologist to help you process this experience and be able to get through this crappy painful experience as best you can.
Extreme reactions to a breakup are probably more common than we think, but really splitting up sucks for everyone. It’s probably on a continuum like most other human things; some people have a little grief and trauma and some people have a lot.
Regardless of where you are, let’s take a look at some ways to start taking your life back and begin feeling better, even if its only a little bit to start.
Allow Yourself The Time for Grief/Sadness
It’s totally okay to be sad, to feel down. It’s okay and maybe even a good idea to grieve the loss and feel all the feelings you’re feeling. If you’re in a safe place, (so probably not at your desk at work or on the bus) go ahead and allow yourself to feel the waves of sadness and loss you’re feeling. Cry or scream into a pillow if you have to. The important thing is to go ahead and feel the feelings. Again, if this is happening 2 weeks after the breakup, go with it, if it’s still happening and not improving one or two months down the road? Maybe see a professional for some help in your healing journey.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. ~Brené Brown
Go “No Contact” If You Have To
You might have a huge urge to call or text your ex. Of course you do, they were a big part of your life and now they are aren’t. You’re used to having them around. If the relationship is truly over and it’s painful to speak or be in contact with them, its perfectly okay to politely end contact with them for your own sense of well being and peace of mind.
Even though in today’s society it’s the trend to stay friends with all of your exes, you simply don’t have to if you don’t want to! It’s okay to do what’s right for you.
A really bad, old joke goes:
Patient lifts their arm and says:
“Hi Doctor, it hurts when I do this”.
The Doctor pauses, and says:
“Well then… don’t do that”.
It’s okay to cut ties with someone if they make you feel really badly and cause you to hurt.
Especially in today’s social media world, it may be best to cut back, unfollow or even block your ex if it’s too painful to watch them moving on. It hurts to watch someone moving on without us and especially since social media only shows the absolute best cherry-picked pics and moments of their life. If it’s too much and it hurts? Turn it off or surf somewhere else.
Don’t Date or Marry the Next Person You Trip Over
Some people jump right into new relationships right away after a breakup. They jump in without looking and without a life preserver. And hey, it’s an ego boost to have someone interested in you right away, it can be a rush that may even make you feel better temporarily. But unfortunately, if you’re really emotional and grieving, you really can’t be present and able to invest energy into a new person and relationship. You really do a disservice to the other person and to yourself if you jump in before you’re ready to swim. Rebound relationships probably have a bad reputation for a good reason.
Avoid the Bad Ways to Feel Good
Step away from the chocolate covered potato chips! Although things like junk food, alcohol, drugs or even sex with a stranger after the club can all make us feel better; it’s almost always just a temporary “feel better” and there is usually always a downside to the bad ways to feel good. There is always the risk of STD’s, hurting our health, gaining weight or the the risk of developing addictions. The reality is that many people develop addictions during a rough period in their lives. Instead, find healthy practices like physical exercise, or mindfulness meditation.
Take the Time For Gratitude & Mindfulness Practice
Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.
~ Kahlil Gibran
Feel gratitude for what you do have in your life; maybe it’s your house, or your your kids, or your job, or your friends and family, or even for your warm and cozy new sweater on a cold fall day. Making a gratitude list regularly can help with improving our mood and mental health and helps us get perspective on what’s truly important. 60 Things to Be Grateful For In Life
Make the time for mindful self awareness, start to believe that your feelings are just feelings, they are not who you are. Step back and observe them rather than getting stuck in them. Here are is a great article on using mindfulness to help you through a breakup. How to Have a Mindful Breakup—the Buddhist Way.
Validate Yourself! Get Involved With Life!
Do things that make you feel good about yourself. Volunteer, take a class, start a new hobby, play a new team sport, start working out again. Be creative and finish the painting that’s been collecting dust, write a short story, take up woodwork or knitting. Whatever it is, find things that make you feel good, activities that have goals you can accomplish and feel good about yourself.
The point is get involved with your life Even if you just go for a long drive or a long walk, get out of the house. Maybe sit in your local coffee shop and people watch or read a book. Find some music you like, and enjoy it, if it makes you feel better. But if you constantly end up listening to country breakup songs when you’d rather be feeling better? Stop it! Step away from the country!
Be Kind to Yourself
Cut yourself some slack, breakups happen to everyone. It’s not because you’re flawed or not good enough! It wasn’t “all your fault”. You were only 100% responsible for your 50% of the relationship — not all of it! Breakups can cause us to have lots of negative feelings and emotions and sometimes the anxiety, anger and pain can be turned inwards on our self. Instead, try to be kinder to yourself and treat yourself with some compassion.
But this is all really part of being a flawed human — we all make mistakes with others and we may not always act in the best ways we could. But to put it frankly? We can’t change it! The past is the past and we can only learn from it. You did the best you could with what you had at the time!
You can have compassion for yourself-which is not self-pity. You’re simply recognizing that ‘this is tough, this hurts,’ and bringing the same warmhearted wish for suffering to lessen or end that you would bring to any dear friend grappling with the same pain, upset, or challenges as you. ~Rick Hanson
Science Is On Your Side
Epidemiology researcher Dr. Brian Boutwell, from Saint Louis University, analyzed numerous studies about breakups and love from an evolutionary psychology perspective. According to Dr. Boutwell,
Our review of the literature suggests we have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives…it suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time.
So there is actually a mechanism in our brain that pushes us to heal and get better! A mechanism that helps us move forward and get on with our lives! So even your brain is pulling for your to get through this!
Find some ways to feel supported. Friends, family, spiritual involvement in your church, temple, mosque, ashram or other spiritual place. Maybe find a support group or make an appointment with a psychologist to get some support. Get some hugs! Getting hugged by someone who cares about us can really be a salve that helps us heal. Don’t isolate yourself! Don’t be afraid to reach out to your family and friends for help and support and maybe even a hug.
And finally here’s another blog with some more ideas on how to start to feel better: Start the Healing After an Emotional Trauma
Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck – Dalai Lama
This blog is not intended as medical advice, treatment or diagnosis and should in no way replace consultation with a mental health or medical professional.