Unfortunately, most of us experience heartbreak a number of times in our lives. If we want to find love, then it’s almost unavoidable. Breakups can affect people for months or even years. Some people find themselves giving up on love altogether. Thankfully, according to new research in Neuroscience and Psychology, there are a number of very effective and practical steps that we can take to heal our pain faster and move on.
According to Psychologist, Dr. Guy Winch’s recent TED Talk, when we’re heartbroken we experience many of the same symptoms as other types of loss and grief, including insomnia, obsessive thoughts, lowered immunity, and even clinical depression.
Here are some of his tips on how to deal with lost love:
1. Understand the science behind a heartbroken brain.
Neuroscience has uncovered remarkable things about the brain during heartbreak. Studies have shown huge similarities in the way our brains behave during a heartbreak and a withdrawal from drugs. In both situations, the brain responds in an addictive way. In the days following a breakup you start to have obsessive thoughts: you become obsessed with the person you love or obsessed with finding answers for what went wrong. You scroll through their Facebook photos. Flashbacks of special moments, or that final fight, play over and over in your head. You desperately try to contact them. The reason it’s so hard to let your ex go is simple: every time you think or see something related to them your brain is actually getting a fix.
In her research, Biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher used a functional MRI (fMRI) to study people’s brains during heartbreak.
“We put people in the machine, and the results really amazed me,” she said. “We found that when they looked at a picture of the person they love, the hypothalamus was pumping out dopamine.”
In the base of your brain is the hypothalamus—the area responsible for your instincts and drives such as hunger, thirst, and lust. The hypothalamus pumps out dopamine and is responsible for all those warm feelings we have when we fall in love. Dopamine makes us feel elated, have mood swings, causes cravings, and is the source of our obsessive thinking. In love, dopamine is at its peak and feels incredible. But when we break up… the dopamine withdrawal hits hard.
Understanding what’s happening in your brain is a good place to start. Whether you were with your love for a month or twenty years, heartbreak hurts. So be kind to yourself and give your brain (and your heart) a chance to heal.
2. Stay off social media. (Even if it’s just for 30 days).
Easier said than done! But there is a reason so many dating gurus suggest a 30 day no-contact period after a breakup. Even if you want your ex back (and some experts say no-contact can actually help with this) having a no-contact month is an incredibly powerful tool. But no-contact means you need to cut all ties, not just seeing your ex in person.
– Block or hide your ex on Snapchat and Facebook (you don’t need to unfriend them).
– Let your ex know you’re going to take some time off social media if that helps.
– Write the date somewhere to remind yourself when 30 days is up.
When you feel tempted to contact them (and you will) distract yourself. Ring a friend who knows you’re in your no-contact period. Go for a run. Read a book. Watch a movie. Binge your favorite TV show. Turn off your phone. Distract yourself however you can.
3. Get rid of the reminders.
As much as possible, remove or hide all the reminders of your ex. Having every reminder out of sight will make recovery so much easier. Love, like the saying, gives you rose-colored glasses.
“Everything about them is special,” explained Fisher. “The house they live in, the street they live on, it’s all special to you. They’re dopamine triggers.”
Leaving lots of reminders around simply triggers your dopamine reaction again and again, and makes it that much harder to move on.
4. Make a list of why they weren’t perfect.
Idealizing your ex and focusing on how amazing they were is a really common reaction to heartbreak. After a period of time, you may find yourself thinking of all the ways they were the only perfect one for you. We have a tendency to forget the bad things about a relationship over time, so Winch suggests making a list.
– Write down all of the ways that the ex was the wrong one for you.
– Think of all the things that you didn’t like about your ex. Did they do anything that was rude or hurtful. Did they have personality traits or habits that weren’t great.
– It’s not about being spiteful or hating the other person. A list of the negatives simply acknowledges that no one is perfect. It provides a bit of balance and a reality check.
– Keep the list on your phone so you can read it whenever you find yourself fantasizing about your ex’s perfection.
5. Get a sense of closure.
After a break up, especially if your ex ghosted or didn’t give a great explanation, the question, “What went wrong?” can torment you. You can waste a lot of energy trying to get an answer, but it only serves to hold you in your heartbreak. According to Winch, you either need to accept the reason the ex gave you or, for the sake of closure, make one up. Give yourself a reason that doesn’t attack your self-esteem.
– It ended because she wasn’t emotionally available. (Not because you weren’t good enough.)
– It ended because he wasn’t ready for a long term relationship. (Not because you’re not pretty enough.)
– It ended because we weren’t a good match. (Not because you’re undateable.)
6. Fill in the voids.
Moving on involves finding ways to replace the gaps that your ex left in your life.
– Go out with friends, or meet new people
– Start a new hobby
– Volunteer in your community
– Have fun, think back to activities you used to enjoy in your single days
– Take yourself out or go on holiday
– Get outside, be active and involved
7. Don’t try to be friends.
It’s not easy to get over an ex if you’re still trying to be friends. Being friends may be possible in the long term but for at least six months any attempt at friendship will, in general, drag the heartbreak out longer. So if it’s possible, attempt have no contact for a month or more. Obviously, this is hard if you’re dealing with a more serious divorce or have kids. In this situation aim for minimal contact. Limit phone calls and stick to short texts or interactions that are child-related only.
8. Distract your brain.
Obsessive thoughts or flashbacks about the good times you shared are easier to control when you understand what’s happening in your brain during a heartbreak. Try to redirect your focus to another activity that engages your brain. Make a to-do list, do math equations your head, or play a challenging word game on your phone to distract yourself when you feeling yourself starting to obsess.
Fisher found that when her research subjects redirected their focus on something else, “the hypothalamus calmed down and stopped pumping out the dopamine that was making them feel lovestruck.”
Heartbreak is not an easy thing. It may seem bad right now, but heartbreak can be a positive life experience in the long run. Relationships break down because they were broken. When we take the opportunity to grow and learn from a breakup, we can come out the other side as stronger, better people.
“Through putting people who’ve been rejected or dumped into the fMRI, we’ve discovered something promising,” Fisher explain, “which is that the attachment eventually reduces. Time does heal the brain.”
Kelly Eden is a writer and single mother living on the beautiful West Coast of New Zealand. She specializes in Education, Health Sciences and Psychology and leads a research-based blog focused on Parenting, Single Parents and Dating at lifewithlittleandlula.com.