Why Breaking Up is So Hard on Your Brain
Have you ever gone through a bad breakup or a divorce? Too many of us have suffered through it. Sadly, about 50% of marriages in America end in divorce, and that doesn’t include the dissolution of all the relationships between non-married couples. After the forced togetherness of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, that percentage could surge even higher. Research shows that after Hurricane Hugo, divorces, as well as marriages and births, increased, suggesting that facing a life-threatening event motivates people to take significant actions in their close relationships.
Heartbreaking, or Brain Breaking?
When relationship troubles or marital conflict lead to a breakup, we typically say it breaks our heart. From a biological and psychological standpoint, however, what we really should be saying is that it breaks our brain.
Look at Nick and Shawna. When they broke up, Nick was a mess. He couldn’t stop thinking about Shawna, hearing her voice in his head, feeling her touch on his body, and smelling her scent in his clothes. After being together for 5 years, everything reminded him of her—from songs to pictures to movies to waking up and going to bed. He couldn’t sleep, he felt constantly anxious and unbalanced, and he even had panic attacks when his longing for Shawna overwhelmed him.
What happens in the brain when you lose someone you love? Why do we hurt, long, or even obsess about the other person?
Breakups in the Brain
When we love someone, they come to live in the emotional or limbic center of our brains. They actually occupy nerve cell pathways and physically live in the neurons and synapses of the brain.
When we lose a lover through a breakup or divorce, our brain gets confused and disoriented. Since the person lives in the neuronal connections, we expect to see them, hear them, feel them, and touch them. When we can’t hold them or talk to them as we usually do, the brain centers where they live become inflamed searching for them.
Overactivity in the limbic system—the brain’s emotional centers—has been associated with depression and low serotonin levels, which is why we have trouble sleeping, feel obsessed, lose our appetites, want to isolate ourselves, and lose the joy we have for life. A deficit in endorphins, which modulate pain and pleasure pathways in the brain, also occurs, which may be responsible for the physical pain we feel during a breakup. Basically, we’re a neurochemical mess.
When a loved one leaves us, we have deep wounds that leave lasting scars. Many of us use alcohol or drugs to medicate the pain. There are smarter ways to cope with the loss of love.
7 Brain Healthy Ways to Work Through Marital Conflict and Breakups
1. Take responsibility for your part.
No breakup or divorce is completely one-sided. Be honest about how your behavior may be contributing to the disintegration of the relationship and learn from what went wrong. Taking responsibility for your part also prevents you from feeling like a powerless victim. It empowers you to take action and make changes in your own behavior that will benefit you—and your future relationships—in the future.
2. Seek counseling before parting ways.
If you feel strongly that your relationship is worth saving, marital counseling can help you explore ways to find some common ground. A therapist can help you learn to communicate more effectively so you can navigate rough patches and emerge with a stronger bond. In some cases where there is no saving the relationship, therapy can provide you with tools that can help you cope better with a breakup.
3. Consider if underlying brain issues may be at play.
Brain imaging studies show that underlying brain dysfunction can ruin relationships. Impulsively saying hurtful things to a loved one, holding grudges, drowning in negativity that sucks the joy out of others, being constantly irritable, or flying off into a rage over small things—these are all signs of brain health issues. Brain SPECT imaging can help identify problems with brain function. Optimizing the brain can make marital therapy work faster.
4. Maintain brain healthy habits.
If you do end up splitting, you may be tempted to drown your sorrows with ice cream or alcohol, to stay up all night bingeing on Netflix, or to cocoon under the covers by yourself. Don’t! Your brain is already hurting from the loss, so it’s important to treat it gently during this time. Watch what you eat, exercise more not less, and spend time with people you like. One of the most important keys to recovering from a breakup is keeping a regular sleep schedule. If you’re having trouble sleeping, consider supplements that promote relaxation, such as melatonin, magnesium, GABA, vitamin B6, l-theanine, and 5-HTP. This will help you heal from the hurt faster.
5. Do not idealize the other person.
When you lose someone, there is a tendency to exclusively remember the wonderful things about them. Idealizing people impairs the grieving process and makes you hurt more. By focusing only on someone’s good qualities, the pain increases. Paying attention to their bad qualities causes the pain to decrease because we’re glad to be rid of them. Spend time writing out the bad times and your ex’s bad points.
6. Cry, then hide the pictures.
At the beginning of a breakup, take some time to allow yourself to feel the pain. Crying can be a wonderful release of the built-up tension in your limbic brain. But after a good cry, eliminate the constant triggers to your nervous system. Go through the house, your computer, and workplace and collect the pictures and gifts, then hide them somewhere. Resist the temptation to permanently delete photos from your phone because you never know what might happen in the future. If you get back together, you’ll feel terrible about having deleted them.
7. Be tough in love.
When you act weak, needy, or demanding during a breakup, you literally push the other person away. You are no longer attractive or appealing. You seem and act like a victim. Forget the notion that being happy is the “best revenge,” being happy and feeling good about yourself is the best for your well-being. And it will help you approach a new relationship with healthier self-esteem.
Marital conflict, anxiety, depression, ADD, and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your relationships and mental well-being are more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your situation worse.
At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for couples, families, and individuals. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.