You don’t need a random writer on the internet to tell you that breakups almost always suck. (Maybe not for your friend Sarah, who claims her breakup was “totally mutual” and is the type of person who can actually pull off a cardigan, but still.) The end of a relationship is rarely easy.
Afterwards, you’re often left sad, confused, frustrated and sometimes even depressed. A person can feel like their whole outlook on love has changed. Some people feel the sadness and heartbreak so acutely that it feels like real physical pain, and some want to do nothing but watch all 200-something episodes of “The Office” and only leave their bed to greet the delivery guy. However, it turns out that there are physiological and scientific reasons for why you feel so poorly after getting dumped — or “ending a relationship,” if that’s what you want to call it.
First, it’s important to note that emotional trauma like that of a breakup not only affects us mentally and emotionally, but, consequently, also physically. In a 2011 study, researchers asked participants to look at photos of former partners while monitoring their brain activity. They saw that the areas of the brain typically associated with physical pain light up. In fact, people reported that Tylenol was able to reduce this pain. (Win!)
According to a 2008 study, when people engage in long-term relationships, they often start to regulate each other’s biological rhythms, such as sleep, heart rate, body temperature and appetite. Given this, a breakup could alter your very physiology, maybe even compromising your immune system.
Also on the physiological front are withdrawal effects. While withdrawal is often associated with substances such as drugs or alcohol, the sudden loss of a lover can also trigger similar effects. Love affects the brain in specific ways: When a self-described person in love sees images of their partner, they experience increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, medial insula, caudate nucleus and putamen.
Interestingly enough, this activity is not seen in lust-based or platonic relationships. We can also see lessened activity in the amygdala, which processes largely anger- and fear-related emotions, in addition to lessened activity in the posterior cingulate gyrus, which deals with the perception of painful emotion.
In terms of chemicals, being in love will raise activity of dopamine, the chemical that signals feedback for predicted rewards, as well as oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone.” Your body begins to expect these chemical signals and adapts to accommodate them. When a breakup occurs, you are suddenly depriving your brain of all the positive sensations it has come to expect, and your brain doesn’t cope well with uncertainty; it’s strained from the sudden loss of these feel-good chemicals, which it then starts craving.
A study looking at the MRIs of cocaine addicts and people in love but recently single showed “…several neural correlates in common. The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that romantic rejection is a specific form of addiction,” says researcher and professor Helen Fisher.
Besides sadness and pain, a common feeling that people can’t shake after a breakup is confusion. A group of studies on college students shows that the students who experienced a recent breakup were more prone to use words such as “bewilder” and “confuse” in daily diary entries than people who hadn’t been broken up with.
When you’re in a committed relationship, your sense of self can start to overlap with your partner, meaning that a sudden break is extremely jarring in terms of identity. Researcher Gary Lewandowski found that, while new relationships serve to expand one’s self concept, the participants reported that a breakup made their self-concept shrink. This confusing feeling means that people feel uncertain about who they are now that the other half they strongly identified with is gone.
Another reason you may be feeling awful after a breakup is because the unexpected ending of a relationship is essentially a form of unanticipated rejection. Humans fear rejection, a fear that likely stems from the historical implications of being rejected from the group during a primordial time period when grouping together was critical for survival. While you no longer have to fear death due to rejection, our bodies retain some of the physiological responses.
When a study looked at the physical effects of rejection, they found that the participants had a sizable parasympathetic nervous system reaction. The parasympathetic nervous system controls most of the body’s functions that don’t need our intervention, like the regulation of our internal organs. The study participants experienced a sudden slowing of their heart rate after rejection, especially if it was unanticipated.
The upside of knowing that the awful feelings after a breakup have scientific backing is that there are also some proven ways to help nudge you back on your feet. (I know there’s nothing more nauseating than an outsider patting your arm and saying “It’ll be okay,” but stay with me, please.)
Obviously, a clear, linear progression from heartbroken to A-okay is pretty much impossible, but researchers and psychologists can offer some suggestions for making it more bearable. Here is some of the best advice for dealing with breakups.
The Placebo Effect
A study of people who had recently experienced a breakup involved giving participants a saline nasal spray.
Half were told it was effective in reducing emotional pain and half were told the truth. The people who received the “pain reducing” spray not only reported less emotional and physical pain, but MRI scans showed that their brain activity decreased in rejection-associated areas and increased in emotion-controlling areas.
The takeaway? Expectations and beliefs matter. If you believe something is going to help heal your broken heart, it’s possible that it will work.
On Dealing With the Rejection Response
“Remember that, while you can’t control these feelings, you can control how you respond to them. Remind yourself that part of what you feel happens automatically and make a large effort to behave responsibly,” advises relationship and family therapist Roger Gil.
The way we behave can have a huge impact on how we feel. Ever heard that smiling can make you happier? There’s truth in that. Remember, while it may not align with how you’re feeling, making mature choices can seriously benefit you in the long run. You don’t want to regret calling up your ex—or worse.
While you shouldn’t wallow forever post breakup, a study by Grace Larson shows that people who regularly spoke and answered questions about their breakup reported being able to process it better than the people who simply filled out surveys. This study proposes the idea that calm reflection can actually aid the healing process.
However, it’s important to note that dwelling for too long is not helpful. Talk to your friends or family about how you’re feeling and what the experience has been like for you. Writing about the experience as if you’re talking to a friend may also be cathartic and healing.
It sounds cliché, but focusing on the positive aspects of the ended relationship can actually help you move on. Various studies show that people who coped through positive reinterpretation of their breakup experience were more likely to experience a positive outcome.
Here, again, positive writing can create positive emotions in both the short and long term. Maybe it’s time to start a journal, eh?
Being broken up with will never be a pleasant experience. Understanding the reasons behind why you feel this pain and sadness post-split is useful, but it can’t take away the pain when it happens. We have yet to discover an instant antidote for heartbreak, so accept that recovery can take some time.
Luckily, recent research suggests that the majority of people overestimate how long it will take them to recover. Furthermore, Monmouth University psychologist Gary Lewandowski found that many people who went through a breakup reported that it helped them to grow and learn from the experience.
Breakups are painful, but I can promise that it won’t hurt forever.
If your breakup has worsened existing depression or if you are worried that you’re suffering from new symptoms, here are some hotline resources that you can contact:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-800-448-4663