by Andrea M. Darcy
You broke up with your partner, and you thought you’d feel great and free. But somehow, that wonderful liberated feeling didn’t last (if it came at all) and you are instead left feeling miserable.
Before you think it must mean you are meant to get back together (remember, you broke up for a reason), learn the science behind why getting over a breakup can feel so bad, then what you can do to smooth the journey.
The Biology of Getting Over a Breakup
It’s not in your head that you feel awful – or, rather, it is in your head, as your brain is being affected. Here is a breakup’s effects on your physiology.
1. You can experience a physical ‘comedown’ affect.
It turns out romantic love isn’t registered like an emotion in the brain, but instead as a “goal orientated motivation state”. In other words, it’s something we’ll work to get as a kind of reward.
The problem is, this is the same part of the brain that lights up during cocaine use. And a 2010 study used magnetic resonance showed that for some of us, thinking about our ex post breakup show the same activity as a cocaine user.
So for those us with a naturally rather addictive brain, or who tend to choose addictive relationships, you might be experiencing physical symptoms similar to withdrawal.
2. Your heart rate can be affected.
Even if you started the breakup, the other person agreeing with your decision can register as a form of rejection (this will be especially true if you have abandonment issues from childhood or have borderline personality disorder, which makes one especially sensitive to any perceived rejection).
A study looking at the body’s reaction to feeling rejected found the parasympathetic nervous system was quite heavily affected, resulting in a slowed down heart rate – no wonder you feel ‘heartbroken’.
3. You might be coming down off an adrenaline high.
A study of 90 newlywed couples found relationship conflict raised adrenaline (also called ‘epinephrine’).
Hardly surprising, given that a release of adrenaline is part of your bodies fight or flight mode, which kicks off whenever you feel stressed (and if you have an anxious attachment style, your body will always trigger into stress in fights – read more on attachment styles and relationships).
The problem is that some people have been found to have brains genetically geared to be attracted to sensation seeking. These are the proverbial ‘adrenaline junkies”. If this is you, and you find adrenaline rushes quite addictive, the loss of the very relationships drama you wanted short of might be leaving you feeling very restless and uncomfortable in your skin.
The Psychology of Getting Over a Breakup
Of course it’s not just physiology. Psychology plays a large part in how we react to breakups. Here are 5 psychological reasons you feel bad.
1. You are forced out of your comfort zone.
We are creatures of habit. Having to change a habit, even if it’s one that was doing us a disservice, can leave us feeling anxious as we can’t predict what’s ahead. It can also trigger personal fears developed from childhood experiences, like fear of failure, or fear of others’ disapproval and not ‘fitting in’.
2. Negative thinking revs into overdrive.
The anxiety that life change brings makes it much harder to think positively. Instead you might caught up in negative thinking, which can be hard to stop due to the cyclical nature of negative thoughts (read more about this our piece on cognitive distortions).
3. Old abandonment fears are triggered.
Is your reaction to the breakup oddly out of synch? As in, you didn’t even like them that much, it wasn’t a long relationship, and you left them, but now you feel hugely upset and unloveable?
It’s likely you’ve triggered a childhood issue around abandonment, meaning what you are feeling has more to do with the past than the present. That said, your emotions are all very real and can be incredibly overwhelming to navigate.
4. You are stuck alone with me, myself, and I.
Let’s face it – relationships are often great ways to avoid ourselves. We can get so caught up in being part of a couple, and ‘helping’ a partner with their issues (also known as the joys of codependency) that we entirely bypass all our own problems and even put aside our own goals.
Suddenly single again, all these avoided pieces of you come rushing back, meaning suddenly we feel anxious, aimless, and possibly depressed.
5. You are bored and lonely.
Relationships can keep us busy. If we aren’t enjoying an activity, we are planning a trip for the future. Even fights are a great way to fill time.
Without the relationship, you might find you haven’t maintained your own interests or social group and are bored and actually quite lonely – neither of which feels good.
So what to do?
If a breakup has left you feeling more lost than liberated, consider seeking support before rushing back to your ex. A counsellor or a psychotherapist can offer you a clear perspective on how the relationship was and wasn’t working, and help you pinpoint the real reasons you feel low –are they really about the relationship at all, even?
You might be surprised by how quickly you can feel better post breakup. A short round of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) sessions, for example, can put an end to negative thinking cycles and leave you feeling balanced and in charge again.
And possibly most important of all, therapy can help you look at what caused you to choose a less than supportive and happy relationship in the first place.
This can mean that next time you choose a relationship, you pick a partner more carefully and hopefully avoid experiencing the breakup blues again.
Andrea M. Darcy is a mental health and wellbeing expert with training in person-centred counselling and coaching. As well as writing hundreds of popular articles about relationships, she works as a consultant helping people plan their perfect therapy journey. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy