Romantic love can be a roller-coaster ride of agony and ecstasy. When it’s going well, nothing is more blissful. But when it ends in a break-up, or in betrayal or rejection, the emotional devastation is hard to bear. How can we best take care of ourselves in such painful times? Recent developments in brain research may provide some guidelines.
Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist and an expert on the biology of love and attraction. Her research on what happens in the brain following break-ups has uncovered biological parallels between the experience of romantic love and the experience of addiction. The feelings of intense attraction in romance are driven by dopamine, and are characterized by exhilaration and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of love. The elevated levels of dopamine are blissful when the love is returned, but a nightmare of craving and anguish when it isn’t. Dopamine has also been found to be elevated in the craving that characterizes addiction as well; and the same areas of the brain that are activated in addictions are also activated in romantic love. This isn’t to say that romantic love is an addiction, but it does suggest that addiction makes use of the same brain processes as romantic love.
This insight suggests that the most effective way to deal with the aftermath of a break-up is to treat it in the same way that recovering addicts treat withdrawal from drugs. So Fisher recommends:
No half measures! Go cold turkey. Throw out the cards and letters. Delete the emails and texts. Put all the photos and mementos in a box and, if you can’t throw it out, then bury it in a closet. Just as recovering alcoholics don’t leave a bottle of vodka on the desk, you should remove anything that might trigger memories of your relationship and send you spinning into a relapse of grief and anguish. Don’t call, don’t write, and don’t show up where your ex works or hangs out. If you see his or her friends, don’t ask how he or she is doing.
Create a short affirmation that you can repeat to yourself while in the shower, while driving, or any time you feel invaded by thoughts of him or her. The first half of the slogan should boost your self-esteem; the second half should state what you want in the future. A good affirmation might be: “I love being myself with a new partner who loves me.” Imagine yourself with someone new; and when you find yourself dwelling on memories of your lost love, focus on the negative events, not the positive ones.
Stay busy. Avoid what psychologists call the “vegetative state.” Don’t sit and stare into space. Get up, get dressed, and go out. Do new things. Any kind of novelty boosts the brain’s dopamine system, and gives you renewed energy and optimism.
Exercise. Any kind of aerobic exercise also stimulates the dopamine system, elevates serotonin to calm you, and endorphins to lessen pain.
Interestingly, Fisher recommends taking Tylenol. The emotional pain that follows a rejection or a break-up activate the same pain regions that are activated when we feel physical pain. By dampening activity in these centers, the popular pain reliever lessens emotional as well as physical pain.
Cultivate gratitude. Make gratitude lists and memorize them. Pay attention to what is going right in your life. Focusing on the negative is exhausting and may slow the healing process. And smile. Thinking of things that make you smile – usually the little but sweet stuff of everyday life, like people you love, silly moments, funny movies – makes you feel better immediately. It also calms down the stress response – which is toxic to physical and mental health – and releases dopamine and natural opioids. Researchers have found that the physical, facial movements of smiling by themselves – regardless of what a person feels inside – cause people to feel more optimistic.
Finally, remember that time heals. The longer the time since the breakup the less activity there is in the ventral pallidum, the brain region linked with feelings of attachment. Over time, attachment wanes. With patience and good self-care, you’ll wake up some morning and realize that you haven’t thought about him or her all week. You’ll feel new vitality and new life, and you’ll realize that you are free.