The very real pain of breakups. Why they hurt so much and what you can do about it.
Breakups suck. They usually suck more for one of the break up-ees. They can suck so bad you don’t want to get out of bed, talk to anyone, eat. Sometimes it feels like you physically cannot do any of these things. All you can do is sit slumped in your bed, staring into nothing, stuck in your thoughts and weeping. Scratch that, sobbing. Sadness, anger and anxiety stalk your days and nights.
Your family or friends come over. Make you food. Dress you. Drag you out of the house unwillingly. Force conversation upon you while you quietly sob into the glass of whatever has been put in front of you that you haven’t even noticed. Everyone tells you it’s going to get better. You may believe them deep down. In that moment though, it feels like you are never going to be the same again. Everything has changed and your body is screaming this knowledge back at you.
I have been there. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. It didn’t just happen once. It didn’t get easier the second time or the third. Why. Why if I am a grown up who supposedly knows about this stuff, didn’t it get easier? Maybe the answer lies in the way our brain processes breakups...
Why it hurts so much
fMRI studies (read: studies using brain scanners that film activity in the brain) show that the same parts of the brain that are activated in physical pain are activated in emotional pain following breakups. Meaning that a really significant break up is processed in the brain in the similar way to a broken leg.
An example? One of the first studies (2010) to looking into this found that the same brain regions (the Insula and Anterior Cingulate Cortex) lit up in people who were shown pictures of a significant ex-partner and those who were, essentially, being burnt on their forearm (had increasing levels of heat applied!).
Another study backed up this idea by showing that the brain releases opioids (the brain’s natural painkillers, usually reserved for times of physical injury) when people feel rejected by potential suitors. This study was particularly interesting as participants in the study were looking at people they had never met before. They were shown a set of pictures and dating profiles of imaginary people and asked to state the ones they liked. They were then told by the researcher that their feelings weren’t mutual, the imaginary suitor didn’t fancy them back. This was when the opioids were released by the brain. So, even though participants knew it wasn’t a real rejection their brain responded to the action with painkillers! As though they had been physically injured!
This doesn’t mean that you necessarily feel the same kind of pain as an injury. It does however mean that even the slightest rejection causes your brain to be alerted to a potential threat to your survival. A threat at the same level as physical harm. It suggests that our brain has evolved to alert us to the threat and then focus our attention on it (not letting us look away or get distracted), believing that it will keep us safe it is focuses on what it considers to be danger. Three cheers for our brains. Again, thinking they are being helpful when they are really making life kind of hellish (see my other posts for other-ways the brain thinks it’s helping us when it is in fact making us feel uncomfortable and pretty afraid).
No wonder break ups therefore feel so damn bad. They aren’t just processed emotionally. They are interpreted as a threat to our survival, meaning our brain focuses on them, fixates on them... treats them as harm.
Do you have to go through these feelings?
No one wants to feel these things. Even though we now know we are less to blame for how terrible we feel (because it’s our brains fault), this doesn’t make the pain that much easier. Maybe it eases some of the self criticism we engage in but we are still left with the fall out.
So… Do you have to go through the awfulness? Unfortunately I would say yes, as avoidance of any kind of emotion usually comes back to bite you on the bum. However, there are ways to ease the pain. Firstly by understanding the process and secondly by taking action.
The process: The 7 stages you may go through following a break up (or following any loss)…
Stage 1: Shock - The break up has just happened. You know it has happened but you can’t quite connect with it. it doesn’t feel real yet.
Stage 2: Denial - Not able to deal with the enormity of the situation our brain steps in with the coping response of denial, “ Nope, it didnt happen, they will come back”.
Stage 3: Anger (some people put anger in 4/5th place because it can come at anytime) - The fear that stalked you through the initial stages has now subsided enough for the anger to come out. This is healthy. Suddenly you realise that YOU MATTER. ITS AN OUTRAGE THAT THEY FINISHED IT. HAVE THEY SEEN YOU! The best part about this phase is that you can use this indignation to get out the house and start rebuilding your independence.
Stage 4: Bargaining - This is a real bugger of a stage. The intolerability of the feelings and separation mean that you suddenly remember the relationship through rose tinted glasses. In this phase people try to bargain their way back to what they had, either with their ex or with a higher power (e.g. promising a higher power that they will do better if they can have the ex back). It’s usually this stage when people decide to give it another go. Assuming it will be different this time.
Stage 5: Depression - The sadness really sets in (this does not mean clinical depression). Appetite changes, the tears come, you want to withdraw from the world. This dark hole can feel like an abyss but its a good sign, you are on the home stretch.
Stage 6: Initial acceptance - This can feel more like surrender at first. Finally giving in to the terms of the breakup. Overtime this will change. While the pain may still be present you can see the relationship more clearly, accepting each person's role in the relationship, the good and the bad.
Stage 7: Hope - THE BEST STAGE! You see a picture of your ex, you don’t feel so much anymore. You go out with a friend and realise you are enjoying yourself (not just tolerating it like you had been). You can feel it, YOU ARE MOVING ON.
These stages are not set in stone. They are just the current conceptualisation of grief post break up. It can’t tell you how you will respond. Also, its not necessarily linear. People go in and out of phases and sometimes round in circles. However, its a good start when thinking about how you are feeling and why you might be feeling it.
Furthermore, when you date someone for a while you incorporate them into your sense of identity. Following a break up you can feel confused about who you are. A literal piece of your identity has been torn from you. So don’t be surprised if you feel like this. Recovering will involve reconnecting with, and rebuilding your personal identity.
What you can do to help - the traditional suggestions
Surround yourself with loved ones. You don’t have to talk or be good company. Friends and family reconnect us with ourselves. They remind us we are lovable. They cause a release of endorphins (feel good hormones), and at the moment this can only be a good thing.
If there is no-one you feel you can talk to, write it down. Journal about your emotions. Research shows significant positive effects of journaling during times of challenge. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Start with… ‘today I felt’ or ‘when …(insert event) happened I felt’. Then just let it flow. Whatever words and thoughts come up. Write hard (or soft, however you feel) for 20 minutes. Finish it with three positive sentences to yourself. Something soothing. Something you have noticed about yourself that's a strength. Words of encouragement. Then re-read it and tear it up. OR don’t!
Be kind to yourself. Give yourself time. Try not to set dates or timelines for your recovery. Timelines will only make you feel worse if you don’t ‘snap’ out of it in the way you hoped.
Get active. This could mean using exercise to trigger endorphins and metabolise stress hormones (see this post for more information). It could mean scheduling your day around the patterns you see arising. For example, if you know that you feel worst in the mornings, go for a walk to get out of the house when you wake up. Meet someone. If you can’t sleep, make sure you are busy during the day and keep a book or crossword next to your bed at night.
Notice self-criticism. Notice any time you blame yourself, list your shortcomings, call yourself names or recall rejections. Doing this is like taking a hammer to a broken limb. Your brain is already running on a survival response. This only activates that further. When this happens think about what you would say to your friend. Say this to yourself instead. You could even write a letter as if to a friend in this situation. Then read it.
Avoid the things that you know make you feel worse. Such as checking your ex's social media or walking past their place repeatedly.
Set boundaries. If your ex keeps calling you or won’t go away. Assertively state that the relationship is over and you need time apart to heal.
The rebound - The less conventional route
It’s the question we have all thought about and on some we have done more than think about - Should you get under another to get over your ex?
Legend says no. Google this. Psychologists almost unanimously agree that this is a bad idea. The traditional belief being that you will transfer your feelings for the ex onto the next. Making you imagine you feel more for this new squeeze than is real. Expectation is therefore that if you get hurt, it will be doubly bad.
Another fear for this is that you will use the new relationship as a form of revenge. An action that will foster your feelings of hurt and add more negativity to the split.
What if i told you that research does not support this? That there is actually evidence to the contrary? Would you race out to your nearest bar, grab your dating apps?
The research team that investigated this found that rapid engagement in a new relationship did not correlate with negative outcome. Instead it lead to increased reports of wellbeing and self-esteem. The people who engaged in rebound relationships were not only more likely to be further along the path to detachment from their ex, but they also felt more desirable and more sure of their sense of identity than those who did not engage in a rebound. However, feelings of desire for revenge were the same across both groups (rebound did not change this!).
The researchers reasoned that the positive findings could have occured due to the rebound relationships meaning minimised disruption to social lives, less time spent worrying about the meaning of the breakup and the link the breakup had to their personal worth.
Now… I don’t think the take home message from this is go find yourself a rebound. I think the take home message is that as long as you surround yourself (from the moment of, or shortly after, the breakup) with people who make you feel good, remind you that you are desirable, fun and worthwhile. The ones that keep you busy and enaged… then your self esteem will be buoyed and you will be fine (or you will get back to fine more quickly).
For anyone living through a break up right now… I hope you are doing ok. I hope you have a good support network and people to turn to. You are going to be fine, it just sucks (understatement) right now.
Fun fact… in the long run, personal growth is commonly associated with break ups: including increased independence, healthier behaviours, more active social lives, better relationships with others. So, maybe your friends and family were right. Maybe it will be ok.
I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. I do this by offering free advice on my blog and on Instagram. I also offer private therapy online (over video link).
Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.
Or... Contact me now for your free 20 minute consultation to see whether therapy with me is the right choice for you!