If you’ve ever had a major relationship heartbreak, you want to be over it ASAP/right now/like, yesterday. You want to fast forward the desperation, dejection and the horrible gut punch when you wake every morning.
When I was blindsided by my marriage break up (twenty six years together, a man that suddenly wanted out, you can figure out the rest) I wanted answers, hope and comfort. And to get unconscious on rosé. But I also wanted to know why I felt like I was going bat shit crazy? Why I felt compelled to look at his social media when I knew it would just hurt me more? And why I wanted him more than I ever did when we were together?
I’m a journalist so I did the only thing I knew how. I started to do my research. And in the end the discoveries led me to write my book How to Heal A Broken Heart by Rosie Green, £14.99, Orion Spring.
During my initial research, I quickly learnt that in an evolutionary misfire, your break up brain seems to actively sabotage your recovery.
Your situation might feel uniquely painful to you (and it is) but I promise you the extraordinary, illogical behaviour is pretty much universal.
I found it really helpful to understand that my brain was making me behave in this way because a) it made me feel less like a loser, b) I felt like if I understood it I could get a handle on it.
So here’s what’s going on in your mind and how to rewire those neural pathways to speed up recovery and emerge stronger, more self aware and yes, happier.
#1 Heartbreak makes your brain crave your ex like an addict does smack.
Problem: Psychologist Guy Winch says that romantic love shares the same neurochemistry that is associated with addiction. And that means that when the drug, or the person we love, is taken away, we go through actual withdrawal. We start doing more and more desperate things to get get our hit of them. This is why you stalk their Instagram, call their mates to chat it through (AKA gain intel), and quite possibly sit outside their work (OK, just me then . . .).
Solution: Go cold turkey. You want to see their picture, hear their voice, get any kind of connection, but actually it just extends your pain.
#2 The pain of heartbreak is invisible, but real.
Problem: You can’t see your injury, so you minimise it and don’t deal with it. But romantic rejection is pain like no other. Guy Winch talks about an experiment done by Michigan University that compared sharp emotional pain and sharp physical pain. Volunteers who had been through a recent devastating break up were placed in an MRI scanner and shown a picture of their ex. Their brain response was measured. Then they repeated the experiment but this time the volunteers were exposed to pain via a hot probe on their arm, the heat cranked up to a level described as ‘almost unbearable’. When the scientists compared the results of the MRI scans, they found that exactly the same areas of the brain were activated by the emotional pain as by the physical pain.
Solution: Just as with a broken bone, a broken heart needs nurture and nourishment to mend well. Invest in your recovery with food, exercise, friends, therapy and being kind to yourself.
#3 Uncertainty makes you feel next level shit.
Problem: The human brain struggles with uncertainty at any time and feeling completely out of control in a break up is common. Your vision of the future, that cosy feeling of knowing where you are heading and who with? Smashed to shit. Hypnotherapist Malminder Gill says that we feel more anxiety over uncertainty than we do about negative experiences when they actually happen. Our brain knows how to cope when it is certain of a bad situation – when the outcome is bad but also clear. But the brain struggles to cope when we anticipate things that haven’t yet happened.
Solution: Create new certainties. Write them down. My friends will be there for me. My family love me.
#4 You start investing in magical thinking
Problem: You start investing in magical thinking because you are so desperate. Magical thinking being all those crazy superstitions we all fall victim to at our most vulnerable. Not grounded in reality, but offering some comfort to desperate people. Example? ‘If I see two magpies it’s lucky, so then we will get through this.’
Solution: Try and get some clarity on the situation. Talk to a friend you can trust, or a therapist. Don’t entrust your future to ‘magic,’ but to yourself.
#5 Finding rejection repulsive is hardwired into our brains.
Problem: As humans we are repulsed by rejection, conditioned to find it deeply unpalatable. We are always given the tools to explain it away. You didn’t get the part? The casting director must have been shagging that other girl. According to psychologist Fiona Murden, rejection feels so bad because it ‘undermines our personal narrative. Which means it goes to the very core of who we believe ourselves to be.’
Solution: Reframe rejection. Author Elizabeth Day helped me do this. ‘I had to learn that rejection was not necessarily a personal indictment of who I was but a result of what the other person was going through, shaped by their own experiences, and their own family dynamics and past relationships, that had literally nothing to do with me.’
By Rosie Green.