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The Science of a Break Up

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The pain of heartbreak is difficult to explain. You may feel engulfed by the pain of parting from your love, of having to rebuild yourself and your broken self esteem, as well as the unbearable sting of rejection. Breakups have a major impact on our emotional wellbeing. Fortunately, we have taken many steps forward in understanding what happens after breakups. While it may not seem like much, simply being able to recognize what you are feeling can make it easier to cope with problems in healthier ways.

Neurobiologically, the parts of our brain associated with perceiving rewards and motivation fire up during a breakup. You may constantly revisit memories related to your ex-partner and sink further into a painful spiral. Revisiting memories, or coming across anything that reminds you of your partner, whether it is a cafe, song, or scent, can create dopamine surges that trigger a “craving” and a feeling of “withdrawal” from that person. These memories can cause great discomfort and distress. Initially, your brain actually seems to try and push you back to your partner because they seemingly gave you a sense of completion.  This could explain why people in manipulative or abusive relationships find it difficult to break out of the cycle of toxicity.

When you are around your partner, the brain releases neurotransmitters that put you in a good mood, making you feel in love. The body is essentially pumped with oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – chemicals that keep us happy and satisfied. Naturally, after breaking up, our brains suddenly stop producing these chemicals and our bodies experience something similar to withdrawal symptoms. Some of these include anxiety, difficulty sleeping, heart palpitations, stress, and loneliness.

Similar to a traumatic experience, post-breakup responses shuttle between avoiding the pain through distraction and feeling intensely distressed and overwhelmed by emotions. Further studies have also shown that reactions to breakups are similar to responses to grief. These stages and associated responses include:

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  1. Denial – Since there is so much painful information to process, your brain might be helping you slow down and take it one step at a time, which comes out in the form of denial. In this stage, you may refuse to believe that your relationship has ended. You might convince yourself that things will get better and that your partner will come back and everything will go back to normal.  
  2. Anger – Once you start feeling your emotions, anger may seem like a more appropriate emotion to express than hurt and fear. You might feel angry at everything. You may hate your partner for breaking up with you, your fate for turning out the way it did, or even your situation that may have led to the domino effect of events that eventually ended in a breakup.
  3. Bargaining – Bargaining is when you dwell on ways that could have prevented the break up itself. You may constantly think of the “what ifs” and “if onlys”, where you usually focus on personal faults that led to heartbreak. Bargaining helps to protect you from the idea that nothing can be done to undo the breakup.

        4. Depression* – Depression is where you slowly start to face reality. In this phase, you might feel like you will never get out of this slump. Your mental health may be severely affected, where you feel disconnected from your friends and family, feel constantly tired, and helpless about the future. This is where you feel like it is impossible to move on from your partner.

         5. Acceptance – This is the final stage where you may not be completely over your partner, but at least in acceptance of the end of your relationship. Your grief no longer interferes with you living life on your own terms. Though there is a lingering sadness that comes with memories of your partner, you no longer feel stuck.

Post the acceptance stage, you might actively start making readjustments to your lifestyle, where you seek support, prioritise your mental health and start moving forward. As you start reinforcing these changes, you may start gaining confidence in yourself and experience a sense of relief and enjoyment that evaded you for so long. “The problem with these stages is that they are never linear,” says Dr Meenakshi Banerjee, consultant clinical psychologist at Cadabam’s Group, “They go back and forth. One day you may be really angry, and the next you may be really sad and missing your ex.”

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Take the first step

A tip to teach yourself to regain your emotional wellbeing is to create a new routine that makes you happy, whether it’s through time spent on hobbies, or friends or even new ventures. In cases where the breakup was traumatic due to emotional/physical abuse or cheating, grief reactions can be complex. In such cases,  it is important to seek social support or even therapy. Therapy can help you cope with the pain from a breakup in a safe space by discussing the various emotions and negative feelings you may be experiencing.

Breakups may be painful, but it is not the end of the world. The brain has trouble readjusting to a life without your partner. Even then, the simple act of recognizing and accepting your emotions can be your first step in the healing process, towards empowerment and emotional wellbeing.

*Disclaimer: The stage of grief called “depression” refers to the emotion of feeling sad, and not the clinical disorder called Depression. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of depression, get in touch with us for a consultation from our team of multispecialty mental health professionals.

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