Some handle breakups with grace. Others handle the deterioration of love with honesty, and yet others, like me, handle it with a nicotine addiction, a drastic hairstyle change and a subscription to the wine of the month club. I cry at Adele and Sam Smith, I read self-help books and take up an obscure new hobby like Italian cooking or rock climbing, and then I get over it — refreshed and ready to take on whatever challenges and experiences the next relationship has to offer.
It is no secret that a breakup can be one of the most painful experiences humans endure. Young or old, straight or not, the decomposition of love can feel like a part of you has been ripped away all at once. While many people’s first instinct at handling a breakup — my past self included — is to dive headfirst into a pint of ice cream and mindlessly scroll through dating apps, there remains more practical and productive methods to properly grieving a breakup.
The first thing a person has to remember if they’re going through a breakup is that the pain they feel in the very fiber of their soul is valid. Relationships are widely accepted as the most addictive drug out there; in 2010, a neurological study at Stanford University found a significant amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that light up when we are in love and the parts of the brain that light up when under the influence of opioids. The correlation was so apparent that the fMRI scans of young couples in love detected a euphoric effect on the brain similar to prescription painkillers.
If love can have the same effect on the brain as an opioid, it’s no wonder why a breakup can conjure the kind of emotional longing that remains very comparable to withdraw. The dopamine rush you used to get every time your partner put their arm around you or said “I love you” is now gone, and all you’re left with is the vague feeling of rejection and a pain in your chest the size of Texas.
This state is when the discomfort of the breakup can make us do impulsive things like text our ex or go on premature dates with people we have no business seeing. According to relationship psychologist Guy Winch, we have a tendency to be particularly cruel to ourselves during this period because our subconscious is trying to understand what all went wrong in the relationship and how to avoid the current feelings of anguish.
This psychological instinct to dissect every conversation and interaction of a past relationship seems like the logical way to learn from the experience, but actually tends to make the pain of the breakup even more severe.
Instead of running yourself ragged trying to overthink the past, it becomes imperative for us to acknowledge another unsavory fact about breakups: they are a loss and therefore must be grieved.
We talk about grieving processes when a loved one dies but seldom do we ever talk about the grieving process of a relationship. Regardless of how long you were with this person, their sudden absence from your life can feel very similar to that of a death, which is important to take into consideration when in that fragile place. If you don’t grieve the relationship with intention, you are doomed to repeat the mistakes of yesterday in the love affairs of tomorrow.
Once you have accepted and validated the pain of a breakup, it becomes imperative to take a moment and practice a little bit of emotional first aid.
When we get a cut on our hand, we get a Band-Aid. When we break our arm, we go to a hospital to set the broken bone. Why wouldn’t we treat emotional ailments with the same decisiveness?
During the first few weeks following a breakup, be as present as you can be in your emotions. If you begin to feel depressed or lonely, plan a lunch date with a friend and don’t hesitate to talk about all of the things you are thinking and feeling. If you’re feeling insecure, remind yourself of three things you like about yourself. If you’re feeling anxious, take a moment to practice mindfulness to calm your nerves.
I also recommend that you abstain from dating for the first few weeks after the end of a relationship. Every date you go on will just feel like an excruciating reminder of the person you don’t have anymore. In all honesty, it just prolongs the grieving process. The quickest way to get over someone is to have the radical courage to face your emotions head on and feel them in their entirety.
If you can’t muster the courage to feel those not-so-palatable emotions, you will condemn yourself to a lifetime of microdosing your pain, and it will poison every future relationship you have until you have the bravery to do what needs to be done — feel.
A breakup cannot just be something you haphazardly experience and then miraculously get over; it’s something you have to be intentional about while also practicing compassion for yourself.
Every heartbreak I have endured has been an incredible jumping-off point, and I say that with the least amount of cheesy conviction possible. I’ve cried on the floor of my living room and chain smoked cigarettes in my car, but I did so with the intention and the bravery to feel those complicated emotions. Because of that bravery, I can walk into relationships unburdened and unafraid.