Why breakups hurt and how to deal with it

In this blog post, we’ll look into what happens when we break up with a partner, the science behind heartache, and lastly, what to do during this challenging time.

by Benedicte Nellemann Dittmer

Most of us will experience going through a breakup at one point or another, and the heartache that follows can be like no other. Be it a good relationship or a toxic one, or maybe with someone you still love, breakups can stir up a lot of feelings. In this blog post, we’ll look into what happens when we break up with a girlfriend, boyfriend, or partner, the science behind heartache, and lastly, what to do during this challenging time.

What happens when we break up?

When you’re in a relationship, it can become a fundamental part of your life and routines. And when that’s taken away from you, it may impact you in numerous ways, such as:

  • Your daily routines can change

  • A sense of security and stability may be gone

  • The future may seem unpredictable

  • You can feel rejected or unwanted

  • You lose someone dear to you

  • Expectations and hopes are lost

  • Your self-esteem may be affected for a while

Why do breakups hurt so much?

Social psychology demonstrates that we are social beings. In 1995, Baumeister and Leary published an influential paper that explored how human beings have a need to belong. They investigated how we as people have a basic motivation that drives us toward other people, and how the lack of attachment can result in ill effects on health and well-being. This phenomenon is also shown in a research paradigm called “Cyberball”, where a participant is rejected by the other players in a virtual game of toss ball. Using Cyberball, it has been widely demonstrated that social rejection can have a variety of consequences on our self-esteem, anger, body temperature, and behavior. And if the brain reacts like this when a computer stops tossing a ball to you, imagine how it responds to a breakup.

If we were to dive further into the pain we experience during a breakup, we find that it is no joke. In a cognitive psychological study by Kross et al., participants performed two tasks during fMRI scanning; in one they were shown pictures of their exes and in the other, they were exposed to physical pain. The results showed that the social pain we experience when thinking about an ex activates areas that support the sensory components of actual physical pain. These are called the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula. In human words, this means that our brain processes pain during a breakup in a similar way as physical pain.

What all of this means, is that it’s perfectly reasonable to need a time out and some extra care for a while. Just like a physical wound, heartbreak takes time to heal.

7 tips for how to cope with a breakup

After a breakup, the future can feel overwhelming. And cliché as it may be, there is no right way to get over a breakup. But there are still some things that may help during the process.

1. Understand that after loss comes grief

Grief is our natural response to loss, and it can have profound effects on our overall well-being. After we lose someone we love, moving forward is rarely a linear process, as grief may come in waves and stages. Grief affects our feelings and thoughts, and our bodies may have reactions as well, such as crying, bodily pain, and difficulty sleeping or eating. The breaking of a bond with someone dear to you is a serious thing. Grieving is a reflection of what we love, and it demands time and understanding.

2. Feel your feelings

During the period after a breakup, a lot of feelings may surface. And they can even seem conflicting. This is merely a healthy part of healing, as it means you are processing what has happened. It’s okay to be both sad and excited, angry and relieved, disappointed and happy. There is no right way to feel after a lost romance.

3. Engage in self-care

This is an opportunity to take care of yourself. When we engage in self-care, we are listening to our needs and doing our best to meet them. This means that self-care comes in all shapes and sizes. An important part of self-care is treating your body right, as exercise and a good diet have profound effects on our mood. With that being said, it’s okay to not have a big supply of energy for this right now too.

4. Spend time with friends and family

Friends and family can contribute with a sense of security and care in periods of instability. It’s natural to feel lonely when you lose someone, whom you’re used to spending a lot of your daily life with. So, this is a chance to reach out to the people around you. And whether you hang out talking, having fun, or just doing nothing together, it’s important to let others support your healing process.

5. Start a project

Although it’s important to acknowledge your feelings, it can become too overwhelming to think about it all. This is when it can be helpful to have good distractions to turn to. Did you ever think about signing up for a cooking class or travel to somewhere new? This might be the time.

6. Boost your serotonin

A relationship is a source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for boosting our mood. This means that when we break up, our serotonin levels drop. But there are other ways to increase your serotonin, and sometimes it can pay off to explore these. Examples are hugging your pet, walking in the sunlight, and laughing.

7. Take one day at a time

When a relationship ends, the future looks different than before. But especially in the beginning, thinking about this can be too much. This is why it’s important to take one day at a time. And if that’s too much, just do one hour. Slowly, it will likely feel less overwhelming.

8. Work through your feelings in the Nuna app

It can be hard to figure out where to start if you’re experiencing challenging thoughts and feelings. In the Nuna app, your mental health companion is ready to guide you through the field of cognitive behavioral therapy and dive further into feelings such as sadness, anger, and guilt. Check it out here ➡️

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