A breakup is inevitable for most of us. According to Helen Chua, a marriage expert, over 85 percent of relationships end up in breakups. This usually happens in long-term relationships as time can magnify our partner’s flaws.
Although it’s inevitable, a breakup can be a source of great psychological distress, especially during its early stages. You will feel bad about yourself, feel rejected, stuck, and unable to move on even if you wanted to. There will also be moments when you feel like you’re obsessing with your ex and you can’t focus on other things aside from him/her. The brain is at fault here but you should not worry, there’s another part of the brain that can help you move on.
How Breakup Can Be Like Physical Pain
We often use the words ache, hurt, and pain to describe the pain after a relationship breakup. The emotional distress after a breakup is real. Furthermore, it has something in common with physical pain. They both activate the same part of the brain.
In one study, 40 people who experience an unwanted romantic relationship breakup within the past six months received a brain scan while they view the photograph of their ex and thought about the breakup. Researchers found out that this activity lit up the same areas of the brain that support sensory components of physical pain. The study demonstrates that a breakup and physical pain are similar. As a result, they are both distressing and share a common somatosensory representation.
Another study supports this notion. This study scans participants while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they are then ultimately excluded. Researchers discovered that social exclusion or rejection activates very similar brain patterns found in studies of physical pain.
How Breakup Can Be Similar to Getting Over an Addiction
Romantic love is a natural form of addiction. During the initial stages of the relationship, people who are in love show symptoms of behavioural addiction such as euphoria, physical and emotional dependence, tolerance, and craving.
Brain scan studies reveal that feelings of intense romantic love engage certain regions of the brain’s reward system specifically for dopamine-rich regions such as the ventral tegmental area. This same area activates when one is addicted to a drug.
Romantic love can either be a positive or negative addiction. It is a positive addiction when it is reciprocated and appropriate. When it’s not or when one feels rejection, it is a negative addiction.
As a natural addiction, there are certain responses following a romantic rejection that is inevitable. Helen Fisher and her team have a good explanation for this.
Using functional resonance imaging, the team studied ten women and five men who had recently been rejected by a partner but are reported to be still intensely in love with them. They were asked to view the photograph of their ex and a photograph of a familiar individual and provided with a distraction-attention task.
When subjects of the study looked at the photograph of their ex-partner, brain areas associated with gains, losses, craving, and emotion regulation are activated. These same areas activate among cocaine addicts. Since these systems are critical to survival, feelings and behaviours related to romantic rejection such as stalking and even depression are hard to control.
How Your Brain Can Help You Get Over It
While the brain is largely responsible for the addictive feelings and behaviour following a breakup, it also has a way of getting over it.
In a review article, researchers from Saint Louis University revealed that people are hardwired to fall out of love and move into a new romantic relationship.
“Our review of the literature suggests we have a mechanism in our brains designed by natural selection to pull us through a very tumultuous time in our lives. It suggests people will recover; the pain will go away with time. There will be a light at the end of the tunnel,” Dr. Brian Boutwell, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice and associate professor of epidemiology at Saint Louis University.
Boutwell and his colleagues examined how people fall out of love and breakup (primary mate ejection) and how they move on and develop a new romantic relationship (secondary mate ejection).
Based on functional MRI scans of those who are deeply in love, there is an increase neuronal activity in the pleasure areas of the brain, the same areas that are also active during cocaine use. Hence, according to Boutwell, falling out of love can be likened to breaking a drug habit. However, the brain has its way of getting over it.
“A person might initially pursue their old mate—in an attempt to win back their affection. However, if pursuit is indeed fruitless, then the brains of individuals may act to correct certain emotions and behaviors, paving the way for people to become attracted to new mates and form new relationships.”
Things to Help You Get Over a Breakup
1. Reflect on the relationship for what it was
When you’re reflecting on the relationship for what it was, you will see that it’s neither all good nor all bad. This will keep you from focusing mainly on the good or positive side of it, which will make it harder for you to accept that it’s over.
2. Just do something that you think can help
Whether it’s talking to a friend or starting a new hobby, science has it that doing something, anything that you think can help can eventually mend your broken heart.
According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, positive expectations may be enough to influence areas of the brain normally triggered by feel-good hormones.
Psychologists from the University of Colorado Boulder recruited 40 volunteers for this study. The subjects were those who had broken up in the past six months. The subjects bring two photos to the study – one of their ex and one of their platonic friend.
Subjects receive a functional MRI while being shown one photo after the other. In between these photos, the researchers apply heat on everyone’s arm using a temperature-controlled device. Volunteers then rate their pain on a scale of 1 to 5.
The scans reveal the same regions of the brain activate when they apply heat on one’s arm and when one is looking at the picture of his/her ex, validating the idea of emotional pain.
Half of the group receive a nasal spray. Researchers told them that it helps in reducing emotional pain. The other half was told that it’s just a saline spray.
In a subsequent MRI scan, those who were given what they thought to be a pain-reducing spray were reported to have less physical and emotional pain. When shown pictures of their exes, there is an increase in activity in brain areas that involve themselves in controlling emotions and a decrease in activity in regions associated with rejection.
The study suggests that if one believes that a certain remedy will help him/her in getting over his/her ex, then there’s a good chance that it will.
3. Try not to look pictures of your ex or other sentimental reminders
Looking at pictures of your ex and visiting places you usually hang out together can create dopamine-related cravings, making it harder for you to get over him/her.
If these suggestions don’t help, you can also try hypnotherapy. Hypnosis is a powerful way of overcoming a breakup and gaining back your confidence. In my practice, I help men and women who have difficult times with their partner. I also help those who are suffering from rejection or unrequited love.
Breakups are hard to deal with but know that even at this most difficult time, you can get over it. Trust your brain and trust yourself.
Published by Hypnosis in London on 28 August 2017, written by Malminder Gill.