The Science Behind Heartbreak: How to Cope with a Bad Breakup
If you’ve recently been through a breakup, read on to learn why heartbreak hurts and how to help ease the pain.
While it’s common for a single person to get rejected now and then, these feelings are made all the harder when they come from someone you love. Coping with heartbreak is never easy, but ending a long-term relationship can be particularly painful, whether you were the one asking for the breakup or not.
But why does this feeling of rejection and loss hurt so bad? While many of us are told that there are “plenty of fish in the sea,” these old adages do little to make us feel better.
A scientific look at heartbreak
Heartbreak is a type of emotional pain, but it isn’t all in your head. In fact, psychologists and researchers found that heartbreak is just as physical as it is emotional.
Back in 2011, psychologists used an MRI machine to look at 40 people who had recently been through a breakup. Before they addressed the participants’ breakups, the researchers tracked which parts of their brains reacted to physical pain (in this case, changing levels of heat). The participants were then asked to rate this pain on a scale of one to five.
But when researchers showed the participants images of their exes, they were astounded: the same parts of the brain that registered the pain from the heat also lit up when they viewed their exes. Our brain reacts to emotional pain in the same way it does to physical pain, making the pain of heartbreak all the more real.
So the pain you’re experiencing after a breakup isn’t all in your head. But it gets worse; thanks to the research of Dr. Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, your brain actually wants this pain. Brown’s research analyzed the areas of our brain that are intrinsically tied to motivation, reward, and reinforcement.
When Brown looked at the brains of people who had recently gone through a breakup, she discovered that viewing pictures of an ex lights up the dopamine centers of the brain. In layman’s terms, this suggests that seeing someone you love (or loved) is like a drug. You’ll always want another hit of the person you care for.
But when a drug is suddenly taken away, it can lead to withdrawal symptoms and severe pain. Brown explains that the same thing happens when you go through a breakup.
How to cope with heartbreak
The stages of coping with heartbreak mimic that of people experiencing the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But even though we all go through the same stages, a breakup looks different for every person and every relationship.
Luckily, there are three methods that can be used in conjunction with one another to speed along healing from heartbreak. These actually include bad-mouthing your ex, distracting yourself, and owning your feelings.
It might seem childish, but talking poorly about your ex can help convince you that you’re better off without them. This is especially beneficial if your friends agree with you. It can be as simple as saying that they had bad breath in the morning. Whatever you do, however, don’t talk poorly about them online or to their friends or family. While you’re giving yourself time to heal, this can put a strain on your other relationships.
Distracting yourself is another good way to get over your ex. This might mean you dive into a new TV show, but it can be as serious as moving across the country. Even if you’re not ready to make such a move, just researching new areas can help you find bigger and brighter things on the horizon. You might even be tempted to check out the best sugar daddy websites to find someone new that can help you forget about those pesky withdrawal symptoms.
Regardless, these efforts mean nothing if you’re not willing to take the time to process your breakup. Forcing optimism or pushing away bad feelings all the time will just hurt you in the end. Wallowing in a little pain can help you come to terms with your breakup in a healthy way, even if you’re eating unhealthy amounts of ice cream.