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Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

Overcoming The Pain Of A Breakup: 3 Suggestions Based On Science

We thought that the expression ‘broken heart’ was just a metaphor, but science is telling us that it is not: breakups and rejections do cause physical pain. When a group of psychologists asked research participants to look at images of their ex-partners who broke up with them, researchers found that the same brain areas that are activated by physical pain are also activated by looking at images of ex-partners. Looking at images of our ex is a painful experience, literally.[1].

Given that the effect of rejections and breakups is the same as the effect of physical pain, scientists have speculated on whether the practices that reduce physical pain could be used to reduce the emotional pain that follows from breakups and rejections. In a study on whether painkillers reduce the emotional pain caused by a breakup, researchers found that painkillers did help. Individuals who took painkillers were better able to deal with their breakup. Tamar Cohen wrote that “A simple dose of paracetamol could help ease the pain of a broken heart.”[2]

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Just like painkillers can be used to ease the pain of a broken heart, other practices that ease physical pain can also be used to ease the pain of rejections and breakups. Three of these scientifically validated practices are presented in this article.

Looking at images of loved ones

While images of ex-partners stimulate the pain neuro-circuitry in our brain, images of loved ones activate a different circuitry. Looking at images of people who care about us increases the release of oxytocin in our body. Oxytocin, or the “cuddle hormone,” is the hormone that our body relies on to induce in us a soothing feeling of tranquility, even when we are under high stress and pain.

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In fact, oxytocin was found to have a crucial role as a mother is giving birth to her baby. Despite the extreme pain that a mother has to endure during delivery, the high level of oxytocin secreted by her body transforms pain into pleasure. Mariem Melainine notes that, “Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, which promotes a sense of euphoria in the mother and helps her develop a stronger bond with her baby.”[3]

Whenever you feel tempted to look at images of your ex-partner, log into your Facebook page and start browsing images of your loved ones. As Eva Ritvo, M.D. notes, “Facebook fools our brain into believing that loved ones surround us, which historically was essential to our survival. The human brain, because it evolved thousands of years before photography, fails on many levels to recognize the difference between pictures and people”[4]

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Exercise

Endorphins are neurotransmitters that reduce our perception of pain. When our body is high on endorphins, painful sensations are kept outside of conscious awareness. It was found that exercise causes endorphins to be secreted in the brain and as a result produce a feeling of power, as psychologist Alex Korb noted in his book: “Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins, neurotransmitters that act on your neurons like opiates (such as morphine or Vicodin) by sending a neural signal to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief.”[5] By inhibiting pain from being transmitted to our brain, exercise acts as a powerful antidote to the pain caused by rejections and breakups.

Meditation

Jon Kabat Zinn, a doctor who pioneered the use of mindfulness meditation therapy for patients with chronic pain, has argued that it is not pain itself that is harmful to our mental health, rather, it is the way we react to pain. When we react to pain with irritation, frustration, and self-pity, more pain is generated, and we enter a never ending spiral of painful thoughts and sensations.

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In order to disrupt the domino effect caused by reacting to pain with pain, Kabat Zinn and other proponents of mindfulness meditation therapy have suggested reacting to pain through nonjudgmental contemplation and acceptance. By practicing meditation on a daily basis and getting used to the habit of paying attention to the sensations generated by our body (including the painful ones and by observing these sensations nonjudgmentally and with compassion) our brain develops the habit of reacting to pain with grace and patience.

When you find yourself thinking about a recent breakup or a recent rejection, close your eyes and pay attention to the sensations produced by your body. Take deep breaths and as you are feeling the sensations produced by your body, distance yourself from them, and observe them without judgment and with compassion. If your brain starts wandering and gets distracted, gently bring back your compassionate nonjudgmental attention to your body. Try to do this exercise for one minute and gradually increase its duration.

With consistent practice, nonjudgmental acceptance will become our default reaction to breakups, rejections, and other disappointments that we experience in life. Every rejection and every breakup teaches us great lessons about relationships and about ourselves.

Featured photo credit: condesign via pixabay.com

Reference

[1] US National Library of Medicine: Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain
[2] Daily Mail: Nursing a broken heart? How taking a paracetamol could dull the pain of rejection
[3] Mother For Life: Oxytocin’s Role
[4] Psychology Today: Facebook and Your Brain
[5] Alex Korb: The Upward Spiral

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Last Updated on April 7, 2020

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

4 Ways to Develop a Flexible Mindset

How many opportunities have you missed because of a bad mood or being stuck in feelings of frustration?

I know I’ve certainly missed a lot. In fact, I can recall an exact time when I missed a great deal of opportunity. I was at a party filled with highly influential people. However, my girlfriend and I had just gotten into an argument because of my irrational expectations of how she would behave, and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I didn’t have any desire to talk to anyone or be open to interesting conversations. All I could think about was myself and my anger and frustration. I was caught up in this story; I was telling myself that I needed to be angry and I needed to show it. I can only imagine the opportunities I missed because I wasn’t flexible in my thinking.

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The mindset you need, then, is one of flexibility and not rigidity. You must be able to go with the flow of events without being disappointed by your expectations. This open-minded approach is a necessity if you want to be happy and experience rapid personal growth. These four ways below will tell you how to develop a flexible mindset.

1. See the feeling for what it is and accept it.

When you begin to notice yourself feeling frustration and anger, use that as a trigger to pause for a moment. See the feeling and sit with it. Don’t act, but stop and accept that you’re feeling this way. Understand that this feeling is just that ‒ a feeling. It’s not who you are, but merely a passing cloud in a sky full of clouds holding different feelings.

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2. Know that it’s OK to feel frustration and rigidity.

It happens to everyone. No one is perfect or immune to anger. It’s OK to feel this way. Give the feeling some space and compassion. It’s impossible to feel thankful and angry at the same time. By giving this feeling ‘some love’, you’re improving your mood and making it easier to come back to happiness. If you think of the feeling as a cloud, imagine opening up the sky and giving it the room to float away.

3. Notice what’s around you ― and breathe.

The key is to be in the moment. Too often we’re caught up in life and it whizzes by without us ever realizing it. Sit back, relax, and focus on your breathe for a bit. Feel it go in your nose, down your throat, into your stomach, and back out again. If you imagine your frustration as a thermometer, the more frustrated you are, the more it fills up. You need to give yourself time to allow it to cool off and that level to go down. Then, look around and be thankful for everything you see.

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4. Realize it’s OK to say, “I don’t know”.

It’s OK to not know how things should be. It’s also OK to not know how things are now. Not knowing sets you up to be able to freely investigate. Why are things this way? What series of events took place that caused this feeling? What unreasonable expectations did I have that put me in this place? Once you understand, you can fully let go and change your course going forward.

I hope these four steps help you let go of your rigid mindset and develop the flexibility to be happy and to experience personal growth. This shift in mindset will stop life from giving you lemons to make lemonade and start giving you whatever you desire. Just remember to pause, breathe, embrace, let go, and move on.

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