By Felicia Levy, LCSW
Most of us at one point or another have been on the receiving end of a break up. Going through a break up is never easy. Here are reasons why we act the way we do, and some things we can do to feel better.
Bizarre break up behavior may include some of the following: excessively looking at pictures; cyber stalking; listening to voicemails; excessive texting; hating them; loving them. Ruminating; trying to figure it out; going over and over (and over!) things in your mind. Feeling angry, confused, and still in love. Pleading; sobbing; drinking; eating; shopping; drama. And this is just a short list! Many of these behaviors make no sense, even to the person doing the behaviors. However- science has an explanation! There are many scientific studies that have looked at the brain going through a break up.
Here’s how brain chemistry works in the love cycle. When you fall in love, the exhilarating rush of pleasure and excitement is caused by the release of the, “feel good” hormones dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and adrenaline to name a few. When we go through a break up, we no longer experience a release of the feel good hormones, so we crash. At the exact same time, we experience stress, so the body also releases extra amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. In a study by Northwestern University, researchers had participants look at pictures of their exes while monitoring brain activity through an MRI. They found that parts of the brain associated with physical pain lit up. The brain signals the body that a breakup physically hurts. This study also showed that the brain chemistry of someone going through a break up was similar to addicts craving a drug they are withdrawing from. Translation, people crave an ex because the brain is in withdrawal during times of a break up. This may perhaps explain some of the behaviors mentioned above. In the same study, the MRIs showed that even though participants cognitively knew the relationship was over, part of the brain showed that the participant was still looking for a feel good fix. Just because the rewards (feel good hormones) were not coming anymore, there weren’t signals to the neurons to no longer expect the reward, thus, they keep firing, waiting for a, “fix.”
The good news is there are many things that can help. In working with clients who are going through a break up, the common question I receive is should they keep in touch with an ex or not? There are many different thoughts on this- however most often it seems best, and easier, to have clean break. Using the drug analogy above, it’s hard to have small doses and not want more. Although, with time it may be possible to resume a friendship, in order to move on, it helps to have cool off time. This time can be used to detach, rediscover who you are as an individual, to heal and grow.
No contact may be hard initially, yet it will get easier. To start with, monitor your progress. Keep a log of every time you contact your ex, or reply to their communication. Include of every social media search and contact. What were you feeling before, during, and after? What triggered it?
To ease the discomfort, set an intention for yourself that you will not contact your ex. Remind yourself why this will be helpful for you. Write it down. Make sure to have other people available who you can reach out to when you are feeling the need for contact. When this happens, ask yourself what is your underlying motive in contacting them. Plan ahead. Create an action plan of what you will do when those feelings come along (journal, exercise, talk, puzzles, etc.). Don’t beat yourself up if you do contact your ex. Just make sure to get back to taking good care of yourself. For some, this process of letting go can be very difficult. Know yourself and don’t be afraid to use methods like “blocking” on social media or devices such as your phone or email. It might feel extreme, but if it will help you “detox” and move on to a healthier place, then it’s worth it!
We all have many “reasons” (excuses) that we want to/need to be in contact with an ex. If you want to be friends right away, examine your motives. Are you hoping to get back together? Are you putting off the pain? Some people say they need closure. Closure needs to come from within you. Chances are nothing an ex says will give you the answer you are looking for. Stop seeking answers to questions or trying to figure it out. Ruminating on unanswered questions keeps you stuck. Allow yourself to stop seeking answers. What if you co-parent, or work together? Keep it business, only talk about relevant topics related to children or work.
Yes there will be a void. To move forward, focus on self-care. Getting back to basics is essential. Pay attention to what you eat, make sure to get rest, limit alcohol, and stay active. A study done by UCLA showed that talking can have healing effects. Spend time with close friends and/or family or reach out to a therapist. When you’ve lost the familiarity and routine of a relationship, surround yourself with people who make you feel loved and cared for. Stop saying bad things about yourself!!! Replace those thoughts with positive affirmations. Keeping a journal while going through a break up can help you get your feelings out, and also help you see your progress. Last but not least, ride the emotions out. It can be difficult to see the light when you feel like you are in a dark tunnel, but it will get better!