Break-ups are a common part of our relationship journeys—but they are uncommonly painful life events. Have you ever found yourself overcome by all-consuming intrusive thoughts? Insomnia, waves of unbidden tears? Unable to concentrate on work or school? Some people interpret this experience as a sign that you are still in love. Others are consumed by guilt or shame.
If your mind feels high-jacked by your ex, thinking about all the good times or obsessing about what went wrong, research suggests there is a reason for this temporary insanity…and it’s not weakness or a sign you should be together---it’s neurological.
Guy Winch is a psychologist, speaker and author of the book, How to Fix a Broken Heart, has dedicated much of his time researching romantic heartbreak. In his 2017 TED Talk, he shares research behind why breakups can be so painful and thought consuming. It turns out, brain scans of young adults who had experienced a recent breakup show that a breakup activates the same mechanism in the brain that is activated by drugs in someone who is experiencing drug addiction. Post-break-up obsessive thoughts are similar to cravings. It’s a withdrawal experience. During withdrawal, the brain amps up your emotional centers, increasing the intensity of all emotions and increases repetitive, OCD-like thoughts.
Similar to the neurology of an addict, the brain’s reward system and the neurotransmitter, dopamine are implicated. Each time we experience feelings of intense love when our partner walks in the door and gives us a hug, dopamine is released. Dopamine is a feel-good brain chemical. But what happens when that feeling is suddenly taken away? We want that rush of dopamine again, so we think about our ex-partner. We try to solve the mystery of what could have possibly happened to cause the breakup by obsessively thinking about it, looking at old pictures, or looking up our ex-partners on social media, but this behavior is feeding the reward system in the brain and reinforcing feelings of love. This in turn makes it even more difficult to recover from the heartbreak and will prolong the amount of time it takes to heal. Allow yourself time for grieving the loss and reflection on the relationship so you can learn and grow---but once you recognize that you’re experiencing non-productive thoughts such as the repetitive replaying of euphoric or painful memories, don’t reinforce this neural pathway. Divert your attention. Distraction is warranted here. Over time, your brain will return to normal.
Dr. Winch found that our mind is more likely to remember the positive aspects of the past relationship and therefore idealizing it. So, you may be inclined to focus on positive memories but not the fights that made you upset. To get yourself on the road to healing heartbreak, Guy suggests making a list of your ex-partners shortcomings. Write down those things that made this person not an ideal partner for you. The next time your brain tries to play tricks on you, pull up the list and read it yourself. This may sound painful, but it is worth it to heal from heartbreak.
Finding a therapist that specializes in relationships will help you to focus on post-break up growth and learning, understand the nature of your historical relationship patterns, overcome co-dependency and to put your happiness first in the next relationship.
Dr. Engler's Articles on the Huffington Post:
Should You Get Pre-marital Counseling?
Women's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler on the factors to consider.
Why Moving in Together Kills Your Sex Life, and What to Do About It.
Men's Health Magazine interviews Dr. Engler about how to improve your sex life, and reviews her book, "The Men on My Couch."
11 Things That Actually Surprised This Sex Therapist.
BuzzFeed reviews Dr. Engler's new book, "The Women on My Couch."