7 Practical Steps to Heal After a Breakup
How could I pull off this suicide?
I was soaking in the bathtub trying to calm myself down after a panic attack, and strategically plotting the best way to kill myself without traumatizing the housekeeper who’d eventually find my body.
This was rock bottom.
This was me six years ago. I had found out the love of my life had cheated on me, and I completely broke apart. I was a pretty “normal” person, or so I thought. I had a good job, great friends and decent self-esteem, but the unexpected breakup pulled the rug from beneath me, and I was barely surviving.
Fortunately, hitting my ultimate low, I slowly picked myself up, and that breakup which I thought was the worst thing to have happened to me, ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. I eventually turned my sadness and anger into the motivation I needed to design the life of my dreams. I ended up moving to New York, traveled the world as a luxury hotel reviewer and created my company, Renew Breakup Bootcamp, to help support women going through heartbreak.
This post is for anyone out there who is feeling the pain of separation. There are things you can do to get back up, process the pain and move from a state of survival to a state of thriving. Here are seven steps to help you during this time.
1. Stop Blaming Yourself,Blame the Chemicals
No, you are not going crazy. After a separation, there is a lot going on in the brain, and understanding the neuroscience of heartbreak will help you realize that feeling sad after a breakup is natural. The same flood of chemicals that causes you to be blissfully in lust during the beginning stages of love, are the exact same chemicals that cause you to painfully suffer when the relationship ends. A brain imaging study showed that the recently heartbroken showed activity in the same areas of the brain as cocaine addicts fiending for their next fix. Your brain is in withdrawal. The part of the brain affected (ventral segmental area of the brain) is associated with motivation, goal-oriented behavior, and the rewards system is responsible for the release of dopamine. Dopamine is that feel good chemical that leaves you wanting more of whatever stimulus gave you the reward in the first place — whether the stimulus is nicotine, chocolate or a loving touch from your partner. Dopamine cravings give you motivation, encouraging you to act accordingly in order to get more of whatever it is you need, and in the case of romance, that need is your beloved. The brain is expecting the reward to come (validation from partner, acknowledgement, return of affection, etc), but after a breakup, the reward is either delayed or doesn’t come at all. Even though on a cognitive level you know the relationship is over, the neurons in your brain that are expecting reward don’t shut down, keeping you unconsciously in love and addicted to your ex.
Action item: Recognize that just like a physical wound takes time to heal, so does an emotional wound. Instead of engaging in negative self-talk about how crazy/weak/sad/out-of-control you feel, remind yourself that you’re going through a natural cycle of separation, and eventually the chemical reactions will subside. Create distance from being your feelings (I am depressed). Instead, reframe and reword to “I am experiencing feelings of sadness.” You are not your emotions.
2. Get Your Body in Check
When you’re feeling stressed, your body creates more adrenaline, which flows into the body, increasing your cortisol levels. Your body is in “fight” mode. Your sympathetic nervous system, which enables your body to respond to threats, kicks in and eating becomes a secondary concern. The body finds a way to suppress hunger pangs, and fewer constrictions and relaxations of the muscles in your stomach slows down the digestion of food. However, your mind, body and heart are all connected. If your body is not getting the nutrients it needs, it will continue in a downward spiral, along with your emotions. Once you get your appetite back, you may crave junk food. People who are feeling sad are less able to perceive the amount of fat in food but are 15% better able to detect sweet, sour and bitter flavors. This might explain why researchers at Cornell University found that people who are sad tend to binge and crave sweets.
Action Item: Force yourself to drink your nutrients with a green smoothie if you need to, just make sure that you feed your body with healthy food so that it can get back into equilibrium.
3. Remove and Replace
It’s time to digitally detox from your ex. Delete old messages and photos, unfollow his accounts and, even better, take a break from social media all together. Block his number if you have to, so you don’t obsess about him not contacting you. No more reminiscing about good times or bad times. During the withdrawal stage of separation, your brain is primed for obsessive behavior and your motivation system is seeking dopamine. Thus, every time you replay that cute video of your vacation, stalk his social media or text him, you are falling into a mental trap that keeps you addicted. To stop this self-sabotaging behavior, the first step is to recognize what is happening in your brain. At that point, when you understand that the urge is normal, you recognize you have the choice to either let that urge control you, or take control of it.
Action Item: When you want to interact with your ex, whether that’s contacting him, or looking at his social media, recognize that it’s your brain craving a hit of dopamine. Replace the urge with another behavior that forces you to be present. This may be calling a friend, engaging in sports or some physical activity, or writing a letter of gratitude to someone you love. The first few times you divert your behavior it will feel contrived and extremely challenging, but the good news is, the more you practice replacing the self-sabotaging urge with a healthy practice, the more the latter route becomes easier and more natural.
4. Mark Your Calendar
Create a list of achievable tasks and cross them off as you complete them. Make sure to add self-care items to the list: exercise, keeping a gratitude journal, meditating, etc. Dopamine increases when you feel organized, finish tasks and physically check them off a list, even if the task is small.
Action Item: Establish a streak — a visual reminder of how many consecutive times you achieved something. This is often used in games to track wins. Take a calendar, and put an X in the box everyday you do something that is positive for your healing. Soon you’ll have a nice row of X’s to visually show off your streak, which increases dopamine production the same way completing a task and marking it off a list does. Knowing that you’re going in the right direction gives your brain enough dopamine to keep going.
5. Shake It Out
When we’re frightened or facing an extreme emotion, our body is flooded with adrenaline, skyrocketing our heart rate and blood pressure. This occurs in both animals and humans. Let’s take the gazelle for example. When a gazelle is confronted with a threatening predator, her heart starts to pound and adrenaline races through her veins as survival instincts take over. However, once the threat is gone and she is no longer in danger, she will quickly shake her entire body as if having a convulsion. Her nervous system is physically discharging the excess energy and arousal that it no longer needs. Shortly thereafter, she’s back to equilibrium and bounces back as if nothing happened.
For humans, we may not be facing physical threats like gazelles in the wild, however our nervous system still reacts with the same automatic chemical processes when we are triggered. A trigger that threatens our sense of safety causes the same cascade of survival mechanisms to kick in. We can learn from the innate response of the gazelle, and shake off our stress and excess energy when our fear or anxiety is activated. Shaking is a natural, self-healing body response to trauma.
Action item: Next time your anxiety is triggered, instead of absorbing the energy which is detrimental to your health, try shaking your entire body for a couple of minutes to restore your inner balance. If shaking isn’t your preferred method of releasing the excess energy, you can opt for a jog or some sort of physical activity that changes your physical state. But if taking 20 minutes to go for a run isn’t possible, do jumping jacks. This is a quick, simple bio hack that knocks you out of your state. Then follow up with a meditation to calm down and center, and you can actually stop the anxiety spiral in its tracks.
6. Put A Timer On It
Allow yourself to process the emotions, but give yourself a time limit. This is the part where you have full permission to do the ugly cry and let it all out. Your range of emotions may oscillate between denial, anger, sadness, grief, fear and anxiety. Even though the emotional rollercoaster may make you feel like you’re going crazy, science showse this is normal. According to neuroscientist Lucy Brown, romantic rejection is much more extreme and primal than other forms of social rejection. Breaking down is a part of your process, but time parameters need to be put into place so that your wallowing is contained and doesn’t overtake your life. Perhaps today you give yourself an hour to talk about it, journal, cry, express the emotions that need to come out. But put a timer on and after that time is up, switch your activity. You must interrupt the cycle of obsessive thinking and rumination. Imagine a big red STOP sign, say it out loud and find a distracting activity, the best choice being physical exercise. Doing something that is physical and requires your full attention is ideal because your brain needs to focus on being present, which stops it from obsessing. This switching of mental states might be hard the first few times, but you get better at it as you practice.
7. Rewire Your Brain
Can you guess what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude. Feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Feeling gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits and can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
Action Item: Research shows that you can rewire your brain in a 2 minute span over 28 days in a row. At the end of that period, your brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world for the positive and not the negative. Seeing things in a frame of positivity and gratitude is a muscle, and like any muscle, you can strengthen it through practice. Take pen to paper, and write down three things you’re grateful for, and why and do this every day for 28 days.
It may feel like the pain is not going to go away, and I can assure you, after working with countless people through their breakups, it does. What matters it the overall trendline, so just because you’re feeling terrible right now, the fact that you’re taking steps to heal, even just by reading this article, is a step in the right direction.
When I was at rock bottom, I couldn’t see anything beyond the suffering. Now, I can look back to see how the dots connect. I realize I had to go through all that – the ups, down the good, the bad and the ugly – to get to the bottom of my childhood wounds, to heal, to open up my heart, and now… to use what I learned to support others. Just focus on the next step. Step after step, day after day. There will be a point where it all adds up. Trust that this is all a part of something bigger, you just don’t see it yet.
Want to learn more? Join me at Renew’s latest live workshop.