Using Science to Heal from Breakups

Using Science to Heal from Breakups

Love can hurt and it’s not just a metaphor. Studies of fMRI scans show that breakups affect the same areas of the brain associated with drug addiction and withdrawal. The process of ending our intimate connections with loved ones can take a profound physiological toll; no wonder it is among the most difficult human experiences.

The disruption of intimacy and the dramatic change in our routines can leave us in pain and feeling isolated; these abrupt changes literally jar our nervous system. For some people, breakups cause trauma, triggering psychological echoes of earlier wounding. Fortunately, the science of human physiology can guide us on the road to healing.

I learned a lot about the science and spirit of the healing process after my own painful breakup. Hopefully some of my experience can be useful to you.

A Scientific Approach to Healing

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems control many of the basic functions in the human body. Put simply, the sympathetic nervous system manages our fight or flight response which has evolved to keep us safe from predators and the threats of daily living, while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for resting, digesting, and recovery. Difficult breakups activate the sympathetic nervous system as if we were under an actual threat, often resulting in the agitation, lost appetite, and disrupted sleep that many of us feel during breakups.

My recipe for healing is quite simple: pursue activities that reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system. The more time your body spends with its parasympathetic system activated, the easier it will become to return to feelings of rest and relaxation. These periods of calm will help reregulate your nervous system and return it to its normal, pre-breakup rhythms.

To be clear, I don’t want you to avoid the grieving process; your ex may have been precious to you and you’re experiencing a heavy loss. Instead, the idea is to strengthen feelings of wellness and well-being so as to expand your emotional capacity for the normal process of grieving. The better you feel, the easier it will be to move through the healing process and avoid getting stuck. Furthermore, the foundation for calm you build will support the powerful learning experiences that will likely come from ending the emotional attachment with your ex-partner.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

First I want to highlight activities that activate the parasympathetic nervous system with the least effort. Often during a breakup, we’re depressed and lethargic and have very little initiative. My favorite healing activities are those you simply show up for.

Massage and acupuncture are on the top of my list. Just as the sympathetic nervous system tightens our muscles in preparation to flee from predators, the physical effect of relaxing our muscles shifts the body back into the restful parasympathetic state. Massage also offers the benefit of safe, compassionate human touch. Similarly, the relaxing effect of heat such as a sauna, Jacuzzi, or a hot spring is also very effective.

Perhaps the most powerful practice I’ve used is the hot and cold plunge; in other words, heat up in a Jacuzzi, steam room, or sauna and then move into very cold water. Many urban spas and hot springs offer this. The effect becomes more and more dramatic as you repeat the cycle. Go from hot to cold ten times and your thoughts will literally slow down, especially those of rumination and obsession that prevent us from healing. One of the reasons this method works is that the cold water stimulates the brain to release hormones that help with depression. Soon you may not even remember that you’re feeling upset – I’ve literally experienced the beginning of trance states during repetitive cold plunges.

Another powerful way to shift your nervous system is through group or individual sound healing, or sound baths. During a sound bath, you lie on your back as a practitioner leads a concert using crystal bowls, vocals, and a gong. As practitioner Daniela White describes, “during a sound bath you are bathed in healing vibrations that help you achieve deep states of relaxation, where the brain entrains to the meditative theta state and the body moves into a process of healing and repairing itself.”

I have experienced dramatic shifts from nearly every sound bath I’ve attended. The effect of harmonic and disharmonic vibrational patterns on the brain seems to reset our thinking patterns. If you’d like to experiment at home, try Banzai Lab’s Brainwave app with a pair of headphones, which are required for the full effect.

I’ve also experienced deep effects from diaphragmatic breathwork classes and float tanks but some people may experience anxiety with these techniques. Only try these if you know they’ve worked for you in the past or if you’re feeling relatively well emotionally.

I recognize that not everyone may have the budget or access to these approaches, but there are many other options as well.

Pets can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Simply sitting with your cat or dog, experiencing their warmth and companionship, feeling the tactile sense of their fur or the rhythms of purring can contribute to the healing process.

Other activities require a bit more initiative. Exercise – going for a run or a walk in nature or taking an active yoga class – can be very effective. I highly recommend establishing a regular exercise routine during your healing process, either daily or every other day.

Restful, restorative yoga classes will have an even more dramatic impact on your parasympathetic system. Simply resting with your legs up the wall for ten minutes also works. Similarly, meditation is proven to calm the mind but if you haven’t practiced before, it may take time to benefit. I recommend taking a basic meditation class to begin.

Stephen Colbert says, “You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time—of anything.” In fact, laughter also activates the parasympathetic system. Yoga teacher Sarahjoy Marsh shares a list of YouTube clips that help people laugh. It’s also important to let yourself cry; Marsh keeps a list of YouTube clips that help with this as well.

Normalizing our sleep patterns during a breakup is incredibly important, but it’s not easy and is accomplished in part by focusing on seemingly unrelated habits, such as the activities above. Minimize stimulants such as coffee, chocolate, cigarettes and caffeinated soda and avoid depressants such as alcohol. Ditto for drugs. All of these substances add to the dysregulation of our nervous system and make it hard to re-establish healthy rhythms. When we don’t sleep well, it can throw our whole body off. During my breakup, the hardest days were the ones where my sleep had been disrupted the night before.

Breakups are a great reason to return to your doctor or preferably a naturopath for a health checkup. While it can be difficult during times of stress, maintaining a healthy diet and staying hydrated can reduce the burden on your digestive system and lower the workload for your parasympathetic system.

A few naturopathic remedies that have helped me at times include probiotics, which support digestion, kava root, which naturally stimulates relaxation, and valerian tea (such as Yogi Teas Bedtime Tea) which naturally encourages sleep. I also recommend regularly treating yourself to a bit of dark chocolate, but away from bedtime.

Seeing a therapist during this time will also be supportive. It’s helpful to have someone to share difficult emotions with who isn’t interconnected with your everyday life. This is not a time to keep your feelings locked up inside.

It may not be easy when you’re experiencing a painful loss, but your goal should be to establish as much routine as you can. Just as the loss of an intimate partner breaks our routines, establishing new routines plays an important role in healing, essentially providing scaffolding for your daily recovery. Part of this routine should include some of the above practices that re-activate the parasympathetic nervous system on a regular basis.

Perhaps there are other activities that you already do such as gardening, hiking or playing a musical instrument that you relax and enjoy. Even though it can be hard when we’re feeling depressed, it’s important to continue to engage our joys and show regard for yourself during this time of pain and loss.

Recovering from Attachment Wounding and Abandonment

I also want to take a moment to address the particularly painful category of attachment wounds. For people with a past history of trauma, breakups can be especially difficult as they can trigger patterns of earlier wounding from our childhood. I wrote about this in Shining Light on Relationship Cutoff and heard from many readers who had experienced the pain of abandonment through breakups, which can be quite serious. Recently, a distant acquaintance committed suicide after his breakup. I know several people, including me, who would have wanted to support him if only we had known the degree to which he was suffering.

It’s important to embrace our feelings during the healing process. Friends may mean well but they often say things that disregard our experience: “You’re better off without them,” “there are other fish in the sea,” “you just need to get your mind off them,” and “you just need to get over it.” In some cases, as I learned with my cutoff essay, people can be vicious. The fact that other people aren’t comfortable with your willingness to feel your feelings and explore your vulnerability doesn’t mean that you need to change. Yoga teacher Marsh has often given me the potent reminder, “Don’t self-abandon.”

For people with trauma in their backgrounds, it can be supportive to have a therapist to help with recovery. I also recommend confiding in one or two close friends and being mindful of sharing with others who may not know you as well or may not be as comfortable with difficult emotions.

Ultimately, it’s useful to reflect on why this breakup has so affected you: what earlier experiences might it remind you of? What themes does it highlight that may have been part of your early life? The more calm, rested, and relaxed you are, the easier it will be for you to have periods of reflection and insight and the more open you will be to learning and personal change. This is why it’s important to create a routine of parasympathetic activation which builds the capacity for well-being in your nervous system.

For me, the abrupt personality shift of my ex triggered the same bewilderment I’d felt but not had words for as a child when adults left me in my mother’s care even as she regularly abused me. The realization occurred during a moment of quiet in a yoga workshop with Seane Corn and trauma specialist Hala Khouri. That understanding helped me move forward more quickly in my healing process.

If abandonment is an element in your breakup, you may also want to visit the websiteof Susan Anderson, author of The Journey from Abandonment to Healing.

Feed Your Spirit

There’s a poignancy to breakups in that they often flip some of the most positive, intense experiences we’ve shared into the most painful experiences of rejection, loss, and isolation. This duality can be confusing, overwhelming and anxiety provoking.

Feed your spirit during this time. I’ve found Brene Brown’s Ted talks on vulnerabilityand shame to be deeply inspiring. Yoga teacher Seane Corn has an amazing ability to shake people to the core in a good way and help them activate their deeper aspirations for love and meaning. Try her inexpensive Yoga of Awakening: Body, Mind, Flow videos to get started.

For many people, breakups trigger life-altering changes. It can be helpful to read the stories of others who’ve been on this journey such as author Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Listening to the right music can be incredibly mood altering. Personally, I’ve found Michael Franti’s music to be very supportive e.g. Have A Little Faith. It can also be helpful to use music that helps us tap into and viscerally feel and process our anger, such as Ani Difranco’s Dilate.

The downside of music is when it reminds us of our ex or leads us to wallow in our loss. Just to be clear, I think it’s important to feel our loss and reflect on it but not to berate ourselves for feelings of longing. Be wary of music that returns us to these states again and again. Instead, listen to music that uplifts your spirit and reminds you of your aspirations.

Moving Forward

During your healing process, contact with your ex can be both positive and negative. I recommend that you walk the high road. Interact with this person as you would like your connection with them to be five years from now when the intensity of the moment has faded. Be civil and show regard; treat them as you would like to be treated. Share with them what was important and valuable to you about your relationship but try to avoid giving mixed signals. If you do slip up, go easy on yourself; you’re a human navigating difficult territory.

As for social networks, use them thoughtfully, knowing that everything you post will be shared with your ex. If it’s constructive, mutually agree with them to detach your social network relationships until a time when it’s easier for both of you. Or detach the connection on your own and perhaps let them know that you’re doing so for self-care and from mutual regard.

After much trial and experience, I recommend taking a break from dating and intimacy during the initial healing from a breakup. Even though it can be painful that your ex might be “moving on” without you, I’ve found that the initial period of a breakup is a rich time for self-study, self-realization and personal growth while premature dating tends to be a path of self-avoidance which may delay these realizations. But, do what feels right for you. There’s certainly value in moving on from old patterns and experiencing playfulness and intimacy again with new people.

There are also a few other practices that can support the healing process:

Make a list of everything in your life that you’re grateful for. It can be constructive to remind yourself of all that is going right and your good fortune even though you’re feeling badly. Don’t discredit feeling poorly but keep this list to re-establish the perspective that is easily lost when we’re not at our best.

Make a list of the qualities and aspects of your relationship that you valued and would like to find again in someone new. And list the qualities that weren’t positive for you that you would like to change. For me, this led to ending an unhealthy pattern of dating women that expressed intense interest in me, but didn’t show it in their everyday actions.

And finally, be mindful of your limited time on the planet. As one of my counselors used to say, “None of us are getting off this planet alive.” What’s deeply important to you? What do you wish to accomplish in your life? The pain of breakups can so distract us from our deeper values, goals and aspirations that it important to anchor ourselves by writing this down and reflecting on it regularly.

If you’re currently experiencing a breakup, remember, you’re not alone. Marsh often reminds students that there are many people around the world experiencing these emotions with you right now and many that have in the past. There are also many people that care about you now and that will care about you in the future in ways you probably don’t realize at the moment. I wish you well in your healing process.

  • Sandhya Rani

    Very helpful article, along with “Shining Light on Relationship Cutoff.”