When people talk about how a heart break can bring out the poet or artist in you, or that “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” probably never had their heart broken. It feels like physical pain, as if someone has reached into your chest and is actually squeezing your heart out. No wonder then that Christie Brinkley once said, “I’d rather have a broken arm than a broken heart.” And, I completely agree. It is the worst feeling ever when a relationship that was once so intimate and rewarded comes to an end.
The end of a relationship is a loss as intense as the death of a loved one and it is only natural that we go through all the stages of grieving, consciously or otherwise, before we can move on. But even before I can think of moving on, I need to know why I feel as terrible as I do. Don’t you?
The Reality of Heart Break
Did you know that “broken heart syndrome” is actually a medical term? According to the American Heart Association, broken heart syndrome is also known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy or takotsubo cardiomyopathy. And, it can happen to the healthiest of us. The AHA goes on to say that studies have proven that there is a link between depression, mental health and heart disease. But, don’t worry yourself about having a heart attack because of a broken relationship. What I only want to emphasize is that the pain that you and I might be going through is very real. And don’t let anyone tell you any different.
A study conducted and published by Stanford University in 2016 surveyed 891 people on hypothetical and real rejection by a significant other. The study found that there was a link between rejection and the individual’s sense of self. In fact, the study goes on to say that this feeling of rejection and the concomitant self-concept can go on to ruin future relationships. The broken heart can persist for years.
“Few things in life are more traumatic than being rejected by someone who knows you well and then, with this insight, decides that she or he no longer cares for you or wants to be with you,” said Carol Dweck, one of the researchers at Stanford University, while adding that when a romantic relationship ends in rejection, it can pose a significant threat to the sense of self.
Few things in life are more traumatic than being rejected by someone who knows you well and then, with this insight, decides that she or he no longer cares for you or wants to be with you. – Carol Dweck
Men Might Be from Mars & Women from Venus
Would it surprise you to know that numerous studies have been conducted by some of the leading institutes of the world on breakups and rejection? One such study, by Binghamton University and University College London, published in at article on Big Think in 2017, surveyed 5,705 people across 96 countries on their memories of their last breakup.
The participants were asked to rate their physical and emotional pain that resulted from the breakup on a scale of 0 (meaning no pain) to 10 (meaning the terrible pain). The study found that women tend to have stronger feelings after a breakup, with the average female participant rating physical and emotional pain as 4.21 and 6.84, respectively. On the other hand, the average rating for the male participants was 6.58 for emotional pain and 3.75 for physical pain. So, of course, both men and women hurt after a breakup, but just differently.
The study also revealed that the recovery process was also different for men and women.
Lead author of the research, Craig Morris, said in a press release,
Put simply, women are evolved to invest far more in a relationship than a man. A brief romantic encounter could lead to nine months of pregnancy followed by many years of lactation for an ancestral woman, while the man may have ‘left the scene’ literally minutes after the encounter, with no further biological investment. It is this ‘risk’ of higher biological investment that, over evolutionary time, has made women choosier about selecting a high-quality mate. Hence, the loss of a relationship with a high-quality mate ‘hurts’ more for a woman.
Well, not all of us might agree that this was the reason why women suffered more, I certainly find it difficult to believe that it is the uterus that leads to women experiencing more pain at the end of a relationship. The good news, however, is that the study showed that women actually tend to recovery faster than men. The research states that while men tend to “move on,” they might not actually have coped with that loss.
It is All in the Mind, After All
So, research also tells us that all that we are experiencing, the emotional and physical pain, and everything else, is actually “all in the mind.” No, I don’t mean it as a joke – functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have proven the neurological impact of breakups! And, you thought researchers would run out of things to study!!
Edward Smith, a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University, along with his team, studied the brain of people who had experienced an unwanted breakup in the past six months, using fMRI. The research, published in Psychology Today, the same areas of the brain that lit up in fMRI images when people experienced physical pain also lit up when they looked at pictures of their ex. The areas of the brain, such as the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, have been associated with the experience of pain for long.
Research has also shown that a breakup could be equated to withdrawal for a drug addict. A study by Helen E. Fisher and her team from Rutgers University actually looked at brain areas associated with cocaine addition to understand the obsessive behavior that is often seen due to the loss of a relationship. The study, discussed in a Business Insider article, found that the loss of a significant other due to a breakup led to the same areas of the brain lighting up on fMRI images as those of cocaine users who were waiting for their next line.
In fact, scientific research has shown that obsessive thoughts and even “craving” for the ex are experienced because after a breakup, we experience something similar to an addict going through withdrawal. There are many who obsessively think about the relationship, their ex, what might have gone wrong and much more. I have actually experienced pangs of nostalgic pain on visiting certain places that I used to go to with my ex and even sometimes during routine everyday chores that we did together. I am sure many of you have gone through the same thing.
So, yes breaking up is painful, it is traumatic. And it is important that we acknowledge that. However, the good news is that the pain is temporary, with studies proving that most young people recover because they are resilient. In fact, Psychology Today goes so far as to say that young adults tend to feel significantly less distressed after about 10 weeks of a breakup. I believe that our evolution has taught us to survive, even if we don’t consciously work on it. This is why studies have also shown that the brain activity seen soon after breakup tends to decline over time.
Having said that, I also know that not all of us are able to pull ourselves out of the pain and depression. So, in the next part of this article I am going to talk about coping with a breakup. The first step to recovery is to accept the pain. This part was meant to help with just that.
How to Deal with a Breakup
If you’ve read the first part of this article on breakups and their impact, you know that it definitely is all in the mind but that in no way means that it isn’t very real. While research shows that the brain physically reacts to a breakup and the ensuing loss, this reaction fades with time. So, should you try to forget about it, not dwell on it and pretend nothing’s happened? Will that help you move on faster?
For one thing, “moving on” doesn’t always mean that you’ve dealt with the loss and the negative emotions in the best way to ensure that they no longer impact your life or sabotage future relationships. Secondly, a study shows that those who do reflect on the breakup and loss might actually be able to get over the emotional and physical impact better and quicker. Who would’ve guessed?
This study, published in the Social Psychology and Personality Science journal, looked at 210 people who had recently suffered a breakup. What it discovered was that dwelling on the breakup, not in terms of obsessively thinking about it but in terms of sharing what you are going through with someone, led to a decrease in the emotional impact, as well as feelings of loneliness. The other thing that significantly helped people cope was “self-concept reorganization.” The end of a relationship, especially if it is accompanied by rejection by a significant other, plays havoc on one’s self concept. So, rather than working only on coping with the loss, if the person works on reinforcing their self-concept, it definitely has a very positive outcome.
Of course, it sounds much easier than it actually is. But, the bottom line is that you consciously need to do something to deal with the breakup because things don’t magically get fixed, right? So, what should you do to not just feel better but cope in a healthy way.
Coping up with Breakups the Healthy Way
Just like in my last article I had mentioned that studies have proven that men and women react differently to the loss of a relationship, they also cope differently. According to research published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal, while both men and women use a range of coping strategies, from discussing their feelings with friends to contemplating suicide, women tend to cope more commonly – wait, don’t beat me up – by shopping! Women also tend to consider a makeover or re-entering the dating arena as means of coping. The research might not mention this about men, but my experience says that men also look at enhancing their appearance and begin dating once again as coping strategies.
Of course, each one of us is unique and we find our own unique ways to deal with adversity, but it never hurts to know how best to cope. So, here are some things that experts recommend as healthy coping:
1. Acknowledge your feelings
It is easier to behave like an ostrich and hide from things that are difficult to face. However, it is only when you accept the feelings that you are experiencing can you look for ways to overcome them. I have already talked about research that says that talking about what you are going through significantly helps in getting past negative feelings. When you are down and out, you might not believe that there are people all around you who want to help you and be there for you. But pushing yourself to reach out to friends and family to talk about the breakup can be of immense help.
2. Don’t Make Important Decisions
Psychotherapists will tell you never to make decisions while you are going through strong emotions. According to research by Harvard University’s Jennifer S. Lerner, “emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making.” There is no denying that we make bad choices under the influence of emotions, whether it is resorting to alcohol, contemplating self-harm or drowning your sorrows in comfort food. All these choices are likely to have long-term negative consequences for you and no one else.
3. Don’t Stop Talking to Others
t is important to remember that your friends and family love you and will be there to support you through this. You don’t have to do it alone. Reach out to loved ones you are most comfortable sharing your feelings with and allow them to help you deal with the loss.
4. Do Something that Makes You Feel Good
No, I don’t mean finish that entire tub of ice cream. Refer to the last point for that one. What I recommend is even if you don’t feel like it, do something positive or constructive. For instance, I used to force myself to get out of bed and go for my morning run. It was only later that I learned that physical activity, such as exercise, leads to the body releasing feel-good hormones, called endorphins.
5. Stick to Your Daily Routine
It is very easy to wallow in sorrow and just stay in bed. I wanted to binge watch Netflix and just stay in bed all day. However, persisting with your everyday activities keeps your life on track. So, if you used to meet friends for happy hour on Tuesday, don’t miss it for the world. According to Headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation, too much free time will get you back into obsessive about the breakup. Keeping busy is a good way to prevent that.
6. Take Care of Yourself
How often have you heard of people simply letting themselves go after the end of an important relationship? The healthy way to deal with the situation is to actually take care of your body as well as your mind. So, if you do want that makeover, get it. But don’t stop exercising, eating healthy and doing what’s good for you.
And if everything else fails and you are feeling overwhelmed by the situation, remember, you are not alone. This is the time to reach out to a psychotherapist. The most effective way to cope with the worst life has to throw at you is to be able to change the way to think about the situation. And who better than an experienced counselor to help you learn ways to transform negative thoughts into positive ones?
As Winston Churchill famously said…
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”
All the best!
Also read: How To Get Over Depression