How to deal with a break-up, according to science

How to deal with a break-up? Before you nosedive that tub of phish food Ben and Jerry’s – these science-backed coping mechanisms can help

Anyone who’s been through a bad break-up won’t be surprised to know that it activates a region of the brain associated with physical pain.

The impact of a broken heart is a bit like turning up to work on crutches – only without the visual cues, people aren’t as compassionate.

To make matters worse, your feelings may take the form of a craving, with your reward system primed for the presence of a lost loved one. It’s the itch that can’t be scratched.

This post-relationship grief manifests itself differently in men and women;  women typically are hit harder by the fallout of a break-up, but they bounce back more quickly than men.

It’s not all bad news, though. Studies show that, while the brain is hard-wired for emotional recovery, it’ll happen more quickly if you give it a gentle nudge. Here’s how:

Wallow in a calm way

We’re often urged to “move on” in the wake of a split. But this 2015 study suggests the opposite may be true.

Researchers Grace Larson and David Sbarra monitored the progress of over 200 students dealing with a break-up.

Over a course of nine weeks, they found that those who dissected their feelings via detailed surveys and free-style interviews felt less lonely and distressed as a result.

Partly, this is down to a therapist-led strategy to acknowledge your pain, rather than repress it. But it’s also to do with validating how you feel.

Read more: Why a break-up may be the best thing that happens to you

Guy Winch, author of How to Fix a Broken Heart, says that our cultural tendency to marginalise heartbreak as a form of pain can make it far more difficult to deal with.

“Studies of disenfranchised grief have found that when societies do not sanction grief, we internalize these standards and regard our own emotions and reactions as less legitimate,” he says.

Carefully managed wallowing creates room for Winch’s plea of “a more open dialogue about how severely heartbreak impacts our emotions and functioning”. Just don’t let it spill over into brooding.

Clear out your digital memories


This sense of reflection, however, does not extend to online photos and messages – which are exactly the no-no you’d imagine them to be.

Steve Whittaker, a psychology professor at University of Calfornia Santa Cruz, says that many people end up with vast digital archives connected to their partners after a split, which “constantly remind them about their prior relationship”.

“People are keeping huge collections of digital possessions,” he says. “There has been little exploration of the negative role of digital possessions when people want to forget aspects of their lives.”

Read more: Unwind and recharge with a green therapy hit

Whittaker’s research shows that these collections can be both evocative and distressing, but people struggle in knowing how to deal with them.

It’s “emotionally taxing” to go through and delete, he says; and many people are “extremely resistant” to doing so (even when they want to). Logistically, it’s also a challenge to go cold turkey on your ex, because videos, images and chats may be spread across multiple devices.

The professor’s paper shows that “keepers” take longer to heal, though. The only drawback to being a “deleter” is that you might regret it afterwards. You could sidestep this by collecting everything in one place until you’ve got a bit of distance, and are ready to deal with it. Think of it as a virtual version of Lorelai Gilmore’s break-up box.

Fire yourself up with distractions

So yes, talking it out is a good thing – but you also want to go big on the distraction game.

In this US study last year, scientists tested a series of cognitive strategies to help a group of heartbroken people move on from their pain.

Mulling over their exes’ negative traits was one approach that worked in dulling the emotional response among participants. But it also resulted in lowering their mood.

Distraction, on the other hand, created a small uplift. When volunteers consciously switched their attention away from thoughts about their partner, they felt better as a result.

“Distraction is a form of avoidance, which has been shown to reduce the recovery from a breakup,” co-author Sandra Langeslag, of the University of Missouri–St. Louis, tells Time magazine.

Read more: Why paddleboarding is the ultimate workout

Start by throwing yourself into exercise: pilates, kickboxing, your local hiking club.

Your wellbeing takes a major bruising in the break-up process, so this will counter with a feel-good endorphin hit. It’ll also introduce a steadying element of routine at a point when your life may feel worryingly off-kilter.

Throwing yourself into your career is another cliché that works (always being mindful to the effects of burnout). Researcher Larson says it’s an approach that can help with regaining a sense of agency, too.

“Not only are you going to feel more attractive and more valuable if you’re really kicking ass in your career, it’s also an area where you can exert total control,” she tells Vox.

Fake it til you make it to reclaim your sense of self

Another good reason to go down the distraction route is the placebo effect it’ll have on your brain.

In a 2017 study from University of Colorado Boulder, neuroscientists found that heartbroken people felt better when given fake treatment said to reduce emotional pain – merely on the basis of expectation.

“Just the fact that you are doing something for yourself and engaging in something that gives you hope may have an impact,” says psychology professor Tor Wager.

This is a similar response to the research that shows smiling can trick your brain into feeling happier; it’s about going through the motions. And that alone may take you to a better place.

So if you’re feeling low after a break-up, go out with your friends. Push yourself in your career.  Sign up to new classes or book a solo travel adventure with a new group of people.

Read more: How solo travel can fix your toxic relationships

Even if you’re not feeling it at the time, you’ll be sending an unconscious message of recovery to yourself.

There’s another reason for this, too. Research by Northwestern University academic Erica Slotter shows that a break-up can seriously cloud your sense of self.

“Romantic relationships can provide some of the richest emotional rewards of adulthood, but they can also leave us achingly vulnerable,” Slotter and her colleagues write in a 2010 paper.

Launching yourself into new experiences at your shakiest point might feel counter-instinctive, but it’s also the most effective way of reasserting who you are outside of your relationship.

And remember – it’s never as bad as you think it’ll be

One final thought; science shows that break-ups aren’t ever as catastrophic as we expect them to be. Like so many things in life, the anticipation is worse than the actual event.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that we routinely overestimate how crushing a split will be, and recover on average twice as fast as we expect to.

Read more: Finding happiness – how to be more confident

“We’re not saying breakup is a good time. We’re not recommending it,” says lead researcher Paul Eastwick. “But it’s less bad than people think.

“One explanation is this idea that people are really resilient,” he adds. “They often don’t realise the kinds of psychological defense mechanisms they’ll use at the drop of a hat.”

So, take heart you’re braver than you know, and stronger than you seem.

Images: Movie Stills DB and Shutterstock

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