How do you survive the pain of a breakup?

What love does to the brain, why breakups cause real pain, and how to get over a breakup with science

A fight with a friend, a breakup with a lover, a breakup after several years together, rejection by your company, the loss of your parents, divorce from your spouse, widowhood-all these types of loss of meaningful connections cause a person suffering of varying degrees of tolerance. Nastya Travkina, editorial director of The Knife and host of the Nastiglo channel, explains why there is no way to survive the loss of intimacy and not feel pain.

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It has to do with the fact that we are created to have relationships with other people and to seek intimacy. In the transformation of the primate brain into a human brain, social connections, which include love, played and continue to play a huge role. Let’s understand how love brain chemistry works, what happens to the body at the moment of separation, and how to cope with the painful feelings and experiences.

How Love Affects the Brain

To understand what happens to the brain during a separation, we need to refresh our memories of the physiological processes that accompany falling in love and the development of attachment in mammals and humans. Science cannot answer the question of why humans and animals choose one partner over another, but we know quite well what happens in the body.

I. Attraction

Butterflies in the stomach and physiological attraction are caused by sex hormones, mainly testosterone (in both sexes). It doesn’t make people fall in love – only provides libido.

II. Falling in love

The neurotransmitter dopamine provides the motivation to move and pursue a partner. It activates the “reward system” in lovers’ brains in direct proportion to the level of their subjective infatuation, promising pleasure and forcing to pursue the object of passion.

Additional energy of passion is provided by cortisol, it not only activates forces, but also puts the body in a state of stress. Adrenal glands actively produce adrenaline. Hence the sweating, the frantic heartbeat and the desire to jump and jump that we feel during the first contacts with the person we like.

People in love have elevated levels of norepinephrine. This hormone is involved in fixing new stimuli in memory, including the process of “imprinting” into the memory of animals – imprinting. Apparently, this is why the image of the beloved gets stuck in the memory. We can think of the object of passion to the point of obsession often also because of a decrease in serotonin levels. Those who are acutely in love have lower serotonin levels-as do those suffering from true obsessive-compulsive disorder.

III. Attachment

Attachment is not just for humans, but for other living beings when they defend a common territory, nest together, care for one another, share the care of their offspring, and experience separation anxiety.

When feelings are reciprocated and lovers form a couple, their cortisol levels drop and serotonin levels rise again, and constant physical contact “pumps” attachment hormones into the couple.

In humans, love alliance is associated with feelings of security, calmness, and emotional unity. Such feelings are mainly related to oxytocin. It is produced during social and bodily contact, embrace, sex, especially during orgasm – and its level is higher in couples who have spent more time with each other. It also shapes parenting behavior, pushing a couple to stay with each other long enough to nurture offspring and continue their species.

IV. Why so many things

Apparently, nature created such a complex chemical process to motivate two very different individuals to form a pair to conceive, nurture and raise children. All this time, the people in the couple are in a state of narcotic intoxication, a love illusion for which they are willing to do a lot.

What happens in the body during a breakup

When this physiological cycle is suddenly interrupted, the body goes into serious imbalance. Dopamine continues to remain high for some time in the absence of the object of love – which means that the motivation to connect with the other person does not diminish, giving rise to anxiety and dissatisfaction. When the inertia of this process stops and dopamine production slows down, on the contrary, depression, apathy, and lack of motivation will set in. Many will be drawn to the dopamine “needle” of alcohol, psychoactive substances, or promiscuous sex (all of which don’t help, but only increase the imbalance).

I. Anxiety

People in love find less activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for experiencing intense emotions, especially negative ones like fear, anxiety and anger. They have a less active posterior cingulate gyrus, which is often associated with experiencing pain.

Experiments have shown that even when women simply hold their beloved spouses’ hands, their brains have a weaker stress-response system in response to current shocks – and the more satisfied they are with their marriage, the calmer they remain.

When we are deprived of such an important support for our body’s equilibrium as a partner-even if we ourselves were the initiator of the breakup and even more so if we were suddenly abandoned-we unintentionally experience a whole complex of fears, anxieties, and dissatisfaction.

II. Real pain

Not only that, but rejection triggers the same reaction in the brain as physical pain. Looking at a portrait of former lovers activates the secondary somatosensory cortex and insular lobe, which are responsible for generating complex physical sensations-the same active in those who hit themselves on the finger with a hammer.

This means that the pain of a breakup is real.

A broken heart causes the same stress and activates the same zones as a broken leg: the moment of any social rejection releases opioids into the brain, natural painkillers whose presence usually indicates real trauma.

III. Heart problems

By the way, the heart can also really suffer from breakups. Broken heart syndrome, as takotsubo syndrome is often called, is a failure of the heart muscle under the influence of severe emotional stress. Such problems may be discovered after the death of a spouse, manifest as chest pains and can lead to death. Postmenopausal women’s hearts are most at risk, but both sexes suffer from it at all ages. Stress can also provoke risky behavior, increasing the possibility of dying in an accident, under the influence of high doses of alcohol or drugs, or in a fight.

IV. Intrusive thoughts.

The nasty part is that our brains, through evolution, have become accustomed to focusing our attention on threats. And if something causes stress and pain, it is seen as a threat. So the desire to follow the life of a former lover, despite all the pain it causes, is a consequence of some “stupidity” of our brain, its biological automatism. And don’t forget the low serotonin levels that cause intrusive thoughts. So it makes sense to make it harder for him to painfully reflect: maybe removing exes from your friends looks childish, but it works nonetheless. But don’t deny your feelings and avoid thinking about the breakup in a constructive way.

What it means.

Feeling terrible after a breakup is normal and natural. Chemically, love is similar to drug intoxication, and a breakup is like an addict’s withdrawal syndrome in the absence of a dose of a substance that usually provides high levels of dopamine. Roughly the same kind of longing is said to be felt for cocaine after breaking up with it.

Our brain is quite capable of coping with both addiction and breakup. It just needs time. Don’t rush yourself: you can digest your emotions for as long as you need.

In a survey I did for my telegram channel, 58% of people said they lost a loved one a year to five years ago, with 66% saying they still feel pain.

Think of it as an illness from which to recover (by the way, severe stress does lead to a drop in immunity and increases the risk of contracting all sorts of viruses in addition to reactive depression).

Understanding that some of these heartbreaking feelings are not in the soul, but in the body, provides some relief and a sense of control. We can more or less control our bodies and make them feel a little less stressed and have a little more fun.

Don’t undermine an already unbalanced reward system with alcohol and drugs (at least know the limits of drunken grief if you can’t help it). Help your dopamine. Of wholesome activities, he likes movement, cognition, and the fulfillment of small short-term goals the most. The reward system will reward you with a boost for making and executing plans, whether it’s cleaning the house, watching a long delayed movie, trying to go for your first run in three years, or at least clearing your inbox of spam until it’s completely empty.

This is why many people make astounding personal strides in sports and education after a breakup, because a great resource of attention and motivation is freed up.

To get a little joy and calmness helps to communicate with a close circle: family, friends, like-minded people – the brain “loves” social acceptance. And, of course, we must not forget about safe methods of relaxation: walks in the fresh air, massage, meditation and various relaxation techniques.

Psychological frustration

The physiological cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones that bubbles up in us during and after a breakup provokes not only physical sensations. These substances regulate emotions and make us feel and experience.

So if you want to ask if you can avoid this mixture of pain, bitterness, hope, resentment, despair and more, the correct answer is no.

You can try to deny your emotions, run from their awareness, or try to give them a different coloring – it’s not me who is suffering from the loss of a loved one, it’s me who is angry; I am suffering not because I loved him, but because he turned out to be an asshole. But like awareness of other traumatic events, this too must go through the universal stages of grieving – shock, denial, anger, bargaining, humility – and come to an acceptance of the situation and a restoration of wholeness.

Loss of one’s own identity

Much of the psychological frustration after a breakup stems from the fact that during a relationship we embed our partner in our own identity. Many look at themselves through the eyes of the lover and borrow their vision for self-identification and for building a picture of the future. Tearing out one of the basic elements from this picture causes us to experience a sense of destruction of the self image and a loss of control over our lives and confusion.

Often we grieve not so much for a particular person, but for the picture of our self that they have allowed us to build. Awareness of this fact helps shift the focus to working on our own condition.

The question “who am I?” is a normal existential question for singles and families, polyamorous people, young people and old people. Its complexity forces us to look for the answer – in activity, creativity or philosophical pursuits. It just sounds louder in moments of crisis.

Use this moment to think about what you expect from life and who you want to become. Otherwise you’ll fall in love again, and it will not be up to existentialism.

Loss of adequate self-esteem

Very often a breakup leads not only to difficulties in self-identification, but also to a decrease in self-esteem. This is especially true for those who have been left behind. In such a situation, it may seem that there is something wrong with you since your partner left you. But this erroneous direction of thought only leads to worsening self-esteem problems and going in circles.

The person we love and his attention to us gives us value in our own eyes. When he leaves, we feel that what he loved us for has devalued-we are not as good as we once seemed. Separating the pain of lost intimacy and love from the pain of wounded pride can be very helpful to recovery.

Be realistic: Almost all people have been or will be abandoned at least once during their lives. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with everyone: we’re all very different, see the world differently, and may be at different stages in our lives when we meet someone.

The most frequent consequences of self-esteem problems are devaluation of the former partner and the relationship with him or, on the contrary, idealization of the past.

Impairment. Some people consider devaluation-ignoring a partner by making derogatory remarks, cultivating contempt, and telling friends that they don’t care about or hate that person-to be a good cure for low self-esteem. But this is not the best way for us to go about it. By devaluing a former lover, we also lose the value of the time we spent together, the experiences that changed us and made us more mature, and we deny the parts of our personality that matured in that relationship-and that we need to live life to the fullest.

Idealization. The other extreme is idealization of the past, where you fixate only on the best moments, collect them and shed tears, going through them like a Buddhist monk goes through his rosary. Of course, it’s hard for us to get over the loss of someone who was there for us in a difficult moment and on whom we could rely – not only in matters, but also emotionally, in our insecurities, insecurities and other things. But remember the distinction between mature and immature love, articulated by Erich Fromm in his book The Art of Loving: “Immature love says, ‘I love you because I need you.’ Mature love says, ‘I need you because I love you,'” strive for a mature understanding of love.

Both strategies of devaluing and idealizing your former partner lead to emotional imbalance.

Diary for self-therapy

Keeping a journal is useful during any emotional upheaval, it allows you to express all the feelings and thoughts that torment you and becomes a calm for the mind, compulsively returning to the object of former love.

Use a notebook, a pen, and your mind to take back control of your self-evaluation. Write down on paper, both the things for which you are grateful to your partner, and the criticisms and regrets that have accumulated during the relationship. Formulate why your relationship didn’t work: you wanted different things from life, didn’t agree on values, the relationship was painful, someone suppressed someone. Make a list of what you had to sacrifice and compromise on that you didn’t want. Write down your daily thoughts and experiences, trying to make sense of the past stage and crystallize it into an experience.

It is this experience at the end of your breakup experience that will become a new part of your identity, your wisdom and maturity. A meaningful experience is your wealth. Even painful experiences can benefit your personality if they are realized and worked through.

The restoration of autonomy and the ability to rely on yourself will serve your personality well: you are complete, and you do not need another person to be of value, to know what to do and who to be.

After this work of becoming aware of your emotional experience, you will feel relief and the beginning of a new life. Studies show that people who understand the reasons for a relationship breakup recover faster and are more satisfied with their next relationship than those who do not reflect on it.

The social background of a breakup.

You may feel uncomfortable and even ashamed explaining to people you know that you and your partner have broken up. You have to face not only internal uncertainty, but also external uncertainty: the future you planned will never happen again – just as the image of your future self is gone forever.

I. Uncertainty and fear of loneliness

All of these worries have only indirect relevance to love and its loss. We feel similar stress when we graduate from school or college, lose our jobs, or move to another country. Uncertainty is the main stressor here. Our brain is not at all well adapted to uncertainty and suddenness, but any novelty soon becomes commonplace for it.

But uncertainty guarantees you freedom of action. The period after the breakup with a long-term partner – one of the most fruitful for the revaluation of values and setting new goals, because at that moment a huge number of obligations is removed from you, and you now have more maneuvering power to dramatically change your life.

We may be troubled by the fear of being alone. It may feel like we can never love again or be happy. Pictures of happiness, success, and an established life can be pressured by the assertion of the superiority of coupled beings over singles. Watching popular movies about love only exacerbates the feeling that something has gone wrong in your life.

II. “Fake Love.”

The main mistake we make in thinking about past happiness has to do with the pop-cultural version of love that is shown in popular movies, songs, and fairy tales. Love is supposed to be stable, the same, begin with passion, quickly result in marriage (or, well, the formation of a modern monogamous couple), and then last forever.

It seems to us that if our love ended, it was a fatal mistake and not real love at all. This statement is false.

Love is valuable as an experience: the experience of knowing the other, the self, the experience of being supermotivated and inspired to care, the experience of experiencing the acceptance of the other – and the acceptance of the other. It is a unique experience that will remain with you even years after your pain is gone and as you forget many of the details you remember now. Ending does not diminish the value of love in the same way that a person’s death does not diminish the actions and feelings they did and experienced while alive.

The brain is malleable. It responds and adapts to intense experiences. The storm of experiences is gradual, because if you take and abruptly interrupt the whole complex chemical process that goes on in the brain of two people in a couple, you can cause serious damage to the whole system. It has to come into balance on its own and is quite capable of doing so.

Sometimes science and triviality converge: it does get better over time, although it’s impossible to believe that now.

One day (whether in a month or a few years) you suddenly feel free of bitterness, resentment and regret. The main thing, as science shows, is to fully comprehend your experience in order to move on.

Question psychologist: how to survive a breakup?

Breakup is a familiar event for each of us. How to get through it with the least losses? How to forgive and let the person go? And maybe, on the contrary, go back to him? “Rules of Life” asked the psychologist to give detailed recommendations.

Why do people break up more often?

Because they have stopped seeing and hearing each other. Or never really noticed and did not hear.

When we get acquainted, we often begin to project a desired image of the partner, while ignoring his or her actions, actions, desires that could signal that this person is not quite right for us. And then we can’t understand why the picture doesn’t add up.

When I find out from a couple in counseling how their relationship began, it often turns out that the partners have not changed: they were the same before, had the same habits, the same reasoning, the same goals and values. It’s just that everyone expected that the “unsuitable” traits of the partner would change over time.

Unfulfilled expectations lead to disappointment and loss of trust. Partners begin to realize that they differ in their views, goals, values, and preferences.

The other extreme is to project onto the partner what we fear most in the relationship. Fantasies in this case are based on past experiences, and again we don’t see or hear the real person.

What are the stages of experiencing a breakup?

Breaking up is tantamount to loss. There are seven stages of grief that apply to living through a breakup: shock, denial, anger, guilt, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

In the beginning, the news of the breakup brings shock, which seamlessly transitions into denial. It seems like a dream: I’m going to wake up and everything will be the same. Then we gradually realize what happened, we begin to experience different feelings: hatred (“How could the partner do this?”), turning into guilt (“What’s wrong with me?”), prompting us to try to fix everything, to start over (“I will lose weight, I will change my job, I will go with him to his mother, she is not so bad, sometimes we had good nights without a fight, etc.”), and then despair sets in, we want only to cry. Sometimes a person can get “stuck” in some stage or cycle of stages. In a healthy version, after healing the loss, the person comes to terms with the fact that the relationship no longer exists, lets go of the partner, completely switches to the daily routine and making new acquaintances.

How long does it take to get over a breakup? Is there a norm?

The time it will take you to recover depends on the characteristics of your character. Some enough for one or two months, and someone suffers for years. But the duration of the relationship has no effect on this.

There is no norm, but there are criteria that are worth paying attention to. As I said above, sometimes people get stuck in one of the stages of grieving. If you notice that enough time has passed, you do not live together, do not date, but you still think that this is a temporary phenomenon, that your partner “will change his mind and come back” (he just needs time to calm down); or you can not give up trying to get your partner, you keep following social networks; or you do not leave the thought of revenge; or you are always thinking about the past and how you would act otherwise – it is worth to seek help from a psychologist. Specialist will help sort out your feelings, live through them and let your partner go.

What exactly you shouldn’t do during a breakup?

Do not follow your partner’s social networks, do not comment on his posts and photos, do not write him messages. Out of guilt you often want to prove something else, to change, to change his mind. Out of pain and resentment you want to take revenge. Or you want to remain under the illusion that you are still in touch, that everything is about to change and your partner will return.

Don’t try to stay friends. For someone with whom the relationship breaks up, it sounds treacherous, he had other expectations. If you were the initiator of the breakup, it will be an attempt to hide from feelings of guilt, the illusion that this way you can reduce the pain and resentment of your partner. Any rejection, a breakup, is unpleasant and painful always and for everyone. If abandoned, it’s an attempt to hold on to the relationship, a self-deception with the hope of getting your partner back.

Many people cut off a relationship without understanding it. And they hurt, and the partner is perplexed, and the wound does not heal for a long time. Try to talk honestly and openly with each other to make an informed decision: discuss what led to this outcome, express mutual expectations that are not met. And if you understand that your relationship really can not continue, thank each other for all the good things. So you can calmly let your partner go. And maybe come to the realization that you can maintain a friendly relationship. Or maybe this conversation will make you both think: Is it worth separating?

Do not try to idealize the past relationships, if you were bad in them. Fear of loneliness pushes to remember only the good moments, and the bad – erase from memory.

Do not blame only yourself or your partner. There is always a mutual contribution in the breakups.

Don’t rush into a new relationship right away. You may repeat previous mistakes, fall into a similar story, which will lead to even more disappointment in the relationship.

Don’t try to numb the pain with alcohol, stimulants, food, shopping, promiscuous relationships, work, games, and more. Any addiction only temporarily dulls the suffering, but does not solve the problems.

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