Why is the old cliché of “breaking up is hard to do,” so true? Experts in the fields of neuroscience and Attachment Theory now have hard science that can tell us just why a breakup can be so painful.
In the book, Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, the authors state, “Studies have found that the same areas that light up in imaging scans when we break a leg are activated when we split up with our mate. As part of a reaction to a breakup, our brain experiences the departure of an attachment figure [such as our mate] in a similar way to that in which it registers physical pain.”
In simple terms, studies show that breaking up is painful. Literally.
In your brain, pain = pain. It doesn’t differentiate between emotional pain and physical pain.
The authors of Attached also say, ‘the emotional circuits that make up our attachment system evolved to discourage us from being alone. One way to nudge us back to the safety of our lover’s arms is to create the sensation of unmistakable pain when we find ourselves alone.”
This explains why even if you know (in your logical mind) with 100% certainty that the relationship is not good for you, it can still be so hard to leave. Evolution has hard-wired you to stay paired up, rather than risk being single. Dang wiring!
All this to say that the excruciating, heart-wrenching pain you feel during a break-up is REAL. Nature made it so.
There is good news: the brain is plastic. So, you can overcome old habits, patterns, and wiring with properly directed conscious awareness.
Step One: Be gentle with yourself, no matter what.
No. Matter. What.
This is first on the list AND the most important.
If you slip up and contact your ex, forgive yourself. There are often layers of letting go that need to happen when you are in the process of ending the relationship for good.
If you are feeling grief or sadness, show yourself some compassion. Losing a relationship can feel like a death of a loved one. In a sense, it is a death. It’s the death of what was. It ‘s natural that you might have to grieve the loss, not only of the person, but also of all the hopes, dreams, and ideas about what could have been.
If you find yourself ruminating on all the ways you might have messed up, then hit the pause button. Do not resume that thought stream until you can center yourself. Once you are centered, you will be able to think clearly from a more loving point of view. For tips on how to get centered and why it is important, proceed to step two.
Step Two: Stay Centered
Staying centered can help you think and act from your wise mind. When you are centered, you have the internal spaciousness to respond in a balanced manner from the most developed parts of your brain, rather than react fearfully from your primitive brain.
You will know when you are connected to your center because you will feel calm, grounded, and at peace with what is. You will trust that everything will work out, and you will be able to speak your truth with love if something is not right in that moment.
Disclaimer: This is a “do your best” type of step. Very few of us are able to stay centered 100% of the time. We all have triggers that can send us off-track. If you are going through a breakup, then you are probably particularly raw and vulnerable. Your nervous system has been under a lot of stress (as explained earlier in the part on attachment). So, again, be gentle with yourself as you experiment with getting centered.
Taking long, deep, slow breaths is a simple way to get centered. You can also try closing your eyes and breathing into your heart space.
The bottom line is, do what works most effectively for you. It need not be complex.
Step Three: ______________ Like Your Life Depends On It
Fill in the blank here: ________________ like your life depends on it.
Pick one thing that you can pour your whole self into. This includes the happy parts, the sad parts, the ambivalent parts, and the parts of you that are hell-bent on a better future without your ex.
Do whatever it is that you love most with vehement fervor. If you love cycling, then cycle like your life depends on it. If you are a rock climber, climb like your life depends on it. If you love gardening, garden like your life depends on it.
If you have always wanted to go back to school, then do some research and make a plan to fulfill those educational needs.
Set goals, and stick to them.
Choose one thing to really focus on. For example, training for a half-marathon got me through a tough breakup. It gave me something (besides the relationship) to really work for and channel my energy into.
Often, when we are in relationships, we make it the center of our universe. Choosing one thing to focus on will make it easier to make yourself the center of your universe again. It will happen naturally as you stay committed to the one thing, and thus stay committed to yourself.
In addition, make sure you nurture yourself in every way possible. Take long walks, exercise, eat well, enjoy time with friends and family, listen to your favorite music, connect with pets, and get out into nature. These are all things that can bring greater balance and joy to your life, regardless of a breakup. So I recommend practicing them early and often.
Over time, these new activities and ways of being will become second nature. One step at a time, you will begin to see your life transform. It’s possible that you might even become the best version of yourself in the process. So while it’s painful at first, breakups can have a silver lining.