Relationships build us; they define us; they sustain us... they can break us, too.
Relationships are the foundation of our lives. We are social creatures by nature. Relationships keep us strong, provide stability when we need it most, and empower us to be better versions of ourselves. Love, specifically, has been a subject sought to be understood for decades. Love moves us. It inspires us. Love is, by many's definition, the greatest reason for living. Just take a look at Taylor Swift's career, for example: a lifetime of lyrical expression, even, has a difficult time summarizing exactly what love is.
What is certain about love, however, is its relentless pain when it leaves us. Research indicates that heartbreak portrays all the hallmark signs of grief: from insomnia, immune system dysfunction, to as high as 40% of individuals showing measurable depression after heartbreak, the loss of love has seriously ill-effects on both our mental and physical health. In fact, heartbreak is analogous to withdrawal from opioids and other drugs. Dr. Lucy Brown is a neuroscientist and professor of Neurology at Einstein College of Medicine in New York who has spent a large part of her life studying the neurology of love and the fascinating mirror between withdrawal from love and withdrawal from addictive drugs. In one of her studies. Dr. Brown took 15 men and women who had recently experienced heartbreak and took a close look at specific regions of their brain associated with pain, where scientists believe passionate romantic love and attachment are localized, and the regions of the brain associated with reward. Dr. Brown's findings were surprising but began answering the tremendous loss, feelings of pain, and difficulty many people endure during heartbreak.
‘The symptoms of heartbreak, such as cravings and emotional and physical dependence, are similar to drug withdrawal.’
Dr. Brown's primary findings were that individuals recently experiencing tremendous heartbreak demonstrated elevated activity in the ventral tegmental area associated with feelings of passionate romantic love and the ventral pallidum where feelings of deep attachment are localized in the brain. Individuals experience heartbreak still feel tremendous love and attachment to their partner, who they no longer have in their lives.
In addition, Dr. Brown also showed that activity was particularly high in the anterior insula, a brain region implicated in feelings of distress and physical pain. Thus, heartbreak quite literally hurts us both as an immensely distressing life-event but also physically. Heartbroken individuals are in pain - lots of it!
Finally, she also noted that regions associated with reward circuitry in the brain - namely, the nucleus accumbens - was highly activated in these individuals. The nucleus accumbens has been reliably associated with all of the primary addictions, including cocaine, tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and heroin. With that said, romantic love is an addiction and, as recovered addicts know all too well, presents its own laundry list of withdrawal symptoms. And they aren't pretty. The issue with love, however, is that most individuals aren't aware of this. Drug-addicts are well aware when and if they're engaging in drug behavior, but relapsing with an ex-love is far more subtle and easier to hide. This, in part, is why getting over a love is so difficult; it has biological and psychological implications that cause us pain, present withdrawal symptoms, and persist.
GETTING OVER LOVE
The broken heart is a dangerous thing, but there are ways to accelerate how you cope with its painful aftermath. The challenge with getting over love is knowing not to engage in behaviors that might bring about relapse. Because love so similarly represents drug-abuse, engaging in these activities will result in full-out relapse that may spiral you back into loneliness, depression and despair, common consequences associated with heartbreak.
To recover from heartbreak, you must avoid this "fix" because it complicates your battle (not journey - battle) for recovery. A text message from an ex-lover, for example, may elicit old feelings; similarly, a phone call or framed photograph at work may usher in thoughts or feelings that spiral you back into heartbreak's grasp. Therefore, it's advised to end a relationship cold turkey. One must eliminate as many insults to their recovery battle as possible or risk succumbing to heartbreak all over again.
Remember the frown
Guy Winch, a practicing psychologist, has consulted many clients about the topic of heartbreak and how to successfully recover from it. Guy recommends that his clients balance out the tendency to idealize an ex-relationship with memories of all the bad things about the relationship. For every time you recall your weekend getaway to your favorite vacation spot, remember the fight you had over nothing that kept you and your ex-partner from speaking to one another for hours on end. For every smile you remember, try to remember the frown, too. By doing this, you are combatting your tendency to idealize your ex-relationship by bringing it closer to reality.
Because, to be frank, your relationship was not ideal - that's why it ended. By clinging on to idealized memories of the past, you prevent yourself from moving on. And to successfully recover from heartbreak, you will have to let go and move on. Guy has his clients make a list of all the dirty, awful things about their ex-relationship and keep it readily accessible on their phone. That way, you might find yourself at work when a scent or other insult suddenly floods your brain with memories of your ex-lover and you can immediately equip yourself with your why they sucked list that adjusts your readiness to perfect the image of what was not perfect to begin with.
Accept the reason - whatever it may be
We also have a tendency to search aimlessly for a reason as dramatic and life-altering as a sudden breakup. Even breakups that seemingly end with a sweetly tied bow often result in ex-lovers searching far and wide for a reason as catastrophic as heartbreak's consequences just to make sense of the situation. He Just wasn't that into me rarely suffices for a reason. Rather, I must have made a tragic mistake or said something to send him away... Does that sound more accurate?
The thing about breakups, though, is that no breakup will ever end accordingly. By nature, breakups are devastating, so investigating for a way to cleanly seal the deal is nigh impossible. Instead, just accept it. Accept it and move on, as difficult as that may be. To resist the addiction of heartbreak, you need closer: accept whatever reason you were given for your breakup and move on.
Fill the void
Heartbreak is so much more than the loss of one other person, and it is important to acknowledge these voids as well. Oftentimes, breakups result in a loss of socialization, activities that once brought us happiness, or support systems that have become integral in our stability. Maybe your ex-lover invited you to their Sunday brunches, an unconsciously important excuse to socialize and meet new people. Perhaps those people became supportive friends of your own who reminded you to hold your head high when you felt otherwise. Or, perhaps your ex-lover invited you to their kickboxing classes three times a week and that the socialization, physical activity and engagement with new, challenging material boosted your sense of self-worth.
What voids exist now that your relationship is over? It's likely that it's so much more than an empty picture frame on your desk at work. It's important to identify these voids specifically, so you can work on re-introducing them into your life.
While much of love is positive and uplifting, sometimes love can also be impoverish and stagnant. Love often forces its constituents to compromise and, consequently, lose individual tenants of themselves that once distinguished and fueled them.
Gary Lewandowski is a researcher who took a look at just this. Dr. Lewandowski assigned two groups who were particularly vulnerable to feeling sad post-breakup (characterized by a recent breakup, not having found a new partner and having had sustained that previous relationship for a significant duration of time) to either participate in routine activity activities of re-discovery. Routine activity was defined as activities the individual used throughout their past relationship and continues to participate in that bring them happiness, while activities of re-discovery were tasks the individual gave up for their relationship but once enjoyed doing Theoretically, both activities should have positively affected this vulnerable population of recently abandoned love-partners; they both occupy the individual with positive alternatives to grieving over their ex-love. Lewandowski's findings, however, greatly supported activities of self re-discovery as positively influencing an individual's ability to cope with the consequences of heartbreak. Participants who engaged in activities of self re-discovery coped faster and reported higher levels of happiness post-relationship.
Odds are you will likely experience heartbreak at some point in your life. Know that it is hard and that it will take time to feel better - but you will feel better. If you know someone who is experiencing heartbreak, offer them your support. Research supports positive social engagement as an effective coping strategy to reduce the consequences of heartbreak. Additionally, know that this person will likely grieve over this ex-lover for longer than you think is necessary. And that's okay, too.
Be patient; be kind; know that it will get better with time and positive, healthy coping strategies.
If you're hurting, know this: it is difficult.... but you do have weapons, and you will heal.
Justin writes about ways to optimize your health and well-being by cultivating resiliency and self-compassion through sustainable movement and exercise habits that lift you and those around you up..