Three Ways to Bounce Back From a Broken Heart

A couple embraces, but the man looks unhappy
(Image credit: Unhappy man photo via Shutterstock)

Have you been dumped? Join the crowd. Nearly 90 percent of Americans have experienced at least one breakup, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

When a person is head over heels in love, happy chemicals, like dopamine, are produced in the brain. But when the relationship ends, the brain abruptly stops churning out those chemicals. The result: feelings of withdrawal and despair, comparable to what happens when someone stops using drugs or alcohol. Some studies suggest that the part of the brain linked to addiction gets activated when a person is dumped.

In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to record the brain activity of 15 college-age men and women who had recently been rejected by their partners. After showing each broken-hearted participant photos of his or her former love, the researchers discovered that areas of the brain that control motivation and reward, as well as craving and addiction, were stimulated; not so when the researchers showed the spurned partners photos of people they didn’t know.

The study volunteers also confessed that they spent more than 85 percent of their waking time thinking about the person who had rejected them. So it’s no surprise that after a breakup, some people obsess about their ex.

Here are three ways you can lessen the pain of a breakup and let go of your ex so you can move on.

Go cold turkey. The best way to deal with an obsession is to take control of it before it controls you, according to Janice Leiberman, a New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in relationship issues.

There are several ways to do this.  "Put the photographs away and delete — yes, permanently — the loving e-mail messages," said Regina Barreca, a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. "And avoid Facebook-stalking your ex and his/her new love interest."

Lucy Brown, a clinical professor who studies the impact that love and relationships have on the brain at Einstein School of Medicine in New York City, suggests taking antidepressants if self-distraction strategies don't work. Antidepressants have been shown to suppress the activity of brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, that play a role in obsessive thinking and craving. Brown compared the effect antidepressants have on emotional pain to the effect morphine has on physical pain — they both numb the hurt.

"You know the pain is there, and it hurts, but you just don't have a reaction to it," she said. "You don't think about it constantly and you aren't obsessed with it."

Mourn, if you want — but not for too long. The emotional pain from a breakup can be just as devastating as the death of a loved one. And the longer you've been together, the more difficult things will be.

The stages of a breakup — shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance — aren’t all that different from the stages of grief. But this is one instance where it's best not to make the post-breakup blues a way of life. Barreca recommends giving yourself no more than two weeks to mourn, whether that means crying, moaning, or missing work. "We permit ourselves to become what I call 'emotionally incontinent' after a breakup," she said.  "By that I mean we think we've earned the right to break or ignore the boundaries of ordinary behavior because we're in pain."

Assigning a boundary to a mourning period is a practice that has been recognized by cultures throughout history, according to Barreca. It's useful psychologically, especially for the community that must react to the person going through a tough period.

At first, "everybody pitches in with sympathy and concern," she said. "But after a certain point, the person has to start acting 'as if' things are getting better even if it doesn't feel that way." If they don't, he or she becomes a burden to the people they rely on for support. "Misery might love company, but company sure doesn't love misery," Barreca added.

Indeed, acting 'as if' matters have improved just may surprise you. "If you act like you're back in control of your emotional life — even if you don't feel that way — you eventually become in control," Barreca said.

Look on the bright side. Rather than wallowing in self-pity and obsessing over what will never be, zero in on the benefits of a breakup.

"Try to focus on the things you can do now that you are single that you couldn't before," said Gary Lewandowski, associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey.  "What did your previous relationship prevent you from doing that you can do now?"

In 2009, Lewandowksi did a study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, that involved nearly 90 people. Everyone had either gotten dumped by or broken up with their partner during the previous three months.  He instructed the newly single individuals to jot down their feelings about their relationship, be they positive or negative. 

Lewandowski found that people who focused on writing about their positive emotions were more likely to feel relieved, free, independent and happy.

On the other hand, people who vented or complained in their writing were more likely to feel sad, lonely and lost, experiencing only a small increase in positive emotions.

 "I think that when bad things happen we tend to have a hard time thinking about anything but how badly we feel," Lewandowski said. "The nice thing about this study is that we asked people to take a new perspective by at least considering possible positive outcomes."

He also believes that if someone experiences a bad event, such as a breakup, the experience is rarely 100 percent negative. "The feelings may be predominantly loneliness and sorrow, but there are probably some silver linings there if you look hard enough to identify them," he said.  

Pass it on: To recover from a broken heart, limit the mourning and focus on the positive.

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