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Why Breaking Up is So Hard on Your Brain

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.

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COMMENTS

  1. Mary Beth Marlar says:

    My father was murdered in January 2020. He was a kind, funny, smart Christian man. I’m totally devastated. Do you have an article about this since it is my dad and not a romantic relationship loss?
    I have had memory issues. I take fermented cod liver oil. I’m definitely on a budget so I don’t think I can afford a brain scan.
    I do know I have acute stress disorder as well as C ptsd now.
    Any feedback will be much appreciated.
    Thanks.

    • Carolyn says:

      Mary Beth, I will let Dr. Amen reply for health specifics but my heart deeply goes out to you. I and my husband are praying for you … and I will continue for a long time.

      It’s difficult enough to lose a parent but terrible, unimaginable in this way. As difficult as it seems, I pray you let go of trying to reason this out and just spend time resting, lying as it were in Jesus’ arms, like a child in her mother’s and father’s arms. Cry it out but rest your heart and mind; talk with others (there must be online Grief Share groups!); let Him comfort you each time you’re cried out.

      And, don’t be oversurprised and overcome each time you’re “ambushed” by memories and the re-realization that he is gone from this life into the next. We do indeed need “re-programming” to learn not to call or plan what we will do for our lost loved one on a given day because we forget he’s not with us. Be easy on yourself and trust you will get better.

      After so much recovery and returning to some normalcy and a new life, I remember planning to call my mother one mooring l8 months after she went to the Lord … ambushed! A moment of returned grief, heart piercing, confusion, and wondering yet better able to go on afterward.

      Dwell on the fact that your father is now safe, that you will indeed see him again, with every tear gone and never to be separated again. Let such true thoughts slowly replace the grieving ones, knowing that is what your dad wants for you.

      I hope you can take comfort that your father is recompensed and actually joyful and at rest in the arms of our Lord Jesus and our Father more than he could imagine or think … and satisfied to wait for your reunion. Our God will right every wrong.

      Oh, I’m saying too much. Forgive me, please but as I said, my heart goes out to you. Just know you will get better and it does take time. Be easy on yourself, dear one.

      A sister,
      Carolyn

    • Carolyn says:

      And, try to dwell on and give thanks for the good memories, unafraid to be thankful that you had such a wonderful, amazing father. Give thanks for all you learned from him and can pass on to your family as well as to those not so fortunate to have had such a dad.

    • Heatheelr says:

      Gosh, so very sorry to hear about your fathers traumatic death. If it is of any comfort after such a horrible loss then know that your father is at peace with the Lord.

      Grief for this loss is a needed and much repeated thing. Ie it is something that rises and falls like the waves on a distant beach until the sounds – and the pain- fade almost imperceptibly.

      Just as good exists so evil does too. Know that your father stood for the good and keep that knowledge close to your heart in the certain Christian Hope that on the other side of death you will meet again.

      H

    • Rebecca Goodrich says:

      Both my parents have died, though not through murder. I can extrapolate that having someone you love deeply murdered is a special kind of hell. We may never know why these horrible things happen, but they do. I’m glad you’re looking for help.

      I think everything said in this article is helpful on some level. Our parents are in our DNA, literally with us all the time. Based on my personal experience with acute traumas, I recommend EMDR for the PTSD. EMDR is the fastest way to remove the “weight” of the traumas that I have experienced. With my therapist, we found it to apply to many types of trauma. Then, we used other therapeutic tools for the rest of the therapy.

      Getting some relatively fast relief from the PTSD, I was quickly able to sleep better, eventually regain the ability to laugh, and rebuild my life and mind.

      An inexpensive B-vitamin and amino acid supplement is Brewer’s yeast. A tablespoon a day in juice or soup can help fill in some nutritional gaps for your body and mind.

      I wish you all the best.

    • Linda Cannon says:

      I’m so sorry, Mary Beth!
      Losing a parent is so hard, at any age and under any circumstance, and
      to have a great father taking from you so unjustly has to be especially devastating.
      I hope you have supportive Family, friends and church family around you, and some kind of support group. This is still fresh.
      I lost my dad (at age 93) five years ago. It was obvious that circumstances were both timed and directed by God.
      We all still miss the flawed, but generous and loving Papa Cyril, but know we will see him again someday.
      I’m praying for you and your family!

    • Lisa brott says:

      My mom also was killed by a criminal with his car in 2018. It’s a complicated traumatic death. A program called http://www.griefshare.org helped me tremendously.

  2. Cat Stomsvik says:

    Is it worse with, why sudden death is so hard on the brain?

  3. Andrea says:

    Great article about our brain and break ups. Thank you.

  4. Hamlet Fortinbras says:

    What’s worse, the brain bash of breaking up or continuing to live with the drama & trauma of a gaslighting covert narcissist (with sadistic traits… so maybe their also malevolent?)? If I can even ever make myself leave…

    Normal in a year sounds good to me round about this time. Oh, but the consequences of having revealed every secret throught, real AND imagined, just waiting to be weaponized as “fake news” truths, when I’m fact they were largely ADD ANTS or intrusive thoughts all along.

  5. B. Jones says:

    What about Children of Divorce. I know that they are stigmatized by their peers and often have higher crimes rates, suffer malnutrition, and are more susceptable (sp) to serious medical conditions earlier in life. etc., etc. etc. And there is no therapy except maybe a Borderline Personality Disorder when they become older due to the long term stress and lack of feeling safe.

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