by Zureida Garda
guest writer for BodyMindSoulSpirit.com
“Perhaps then, in the midst of breakdown, the seeds of breakthrough can take root – planted with wisdom, watered with love, held in the warmth of your timeless presence.” – Jeff Foster
From the moment we are conceived to the time we die, we live in relation to others: our mother and father, our siblings, our spouse or partner, and everyone in between. Relating and relationships are core to our experience as human beings. Most of us are instinctively drawn to form a romantic and intimate connection with a significant other. When we find this connection and fall in love, we are flooded with feelings of intense joy. But what happens when this euphoria is disrupted in the form of a break-up? Whether it is the ending of a long term relationship such as a marriage or a shorter period of dating, breaking up is a painful and difficult experience for most of us.
Scientists have pinpointed several chemicals which result in the euphoria of falling in love, including dopamine, oxytocin, phenylethylamine and serotonin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding or love hormone. It is released during the birth process and plays a powerful role in the formation of the strong bond between a mother and her child. Oxytocin is also released during orgasm and is linked to the development of feelings of trust and attachment between individuals. As a romantic relationship progresses, the exhilarating rush of these chemicals recedes but the sense of attachment persists, often leading to serious commitment and a planned future together.
Similarly, breaking up has a physiological effect. Neuropsychology research has demonstrated that emotional pain activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. This results in experiencing heart break as if it were physical trauma. Any pain registered by the body triggers the stress response with the release of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenalin. If this response is sustained, it can have a negative effect on health, including decreasing immune function, increasing anxiety levels and producing symptoms of depression.
Psychologically, a breakup results in feelings of loss and grief, often echoing what is experienced after the death of a loved one. This occurs especially after the breakup of a long-term relationship and is made worse when it involves custody arrangements for children and the loss of a family home. Relationships with friends and extended family are also usually affected. The comfort and familiarity of an established way of life is lost, as well as the possibility and hope of a shared future.
We gain most of our sense of self and identity through our life experiences, and being in a relationship and seeing ourselves as a wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend or partner often becomes a large part of this. After a breakup, we can feel as if we are floundering as we grapple with working out who we are without the defining relationship. The experience of a breakup is frequently described as though the bottom has fallen out of our world – an apt metaphor for the groundless feeling often experienced.
Stages Of Grief
Psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, has outlined the stages of grief experienced after a death of a loved one. These also apply to the end of a relationship. They do not necessarily happen linearly, and they can occur concurrently and repeatedly.
We struggle to believe that the relationship is over. We may hope for reconciliation and fantasise about the relationship resuming.
This is closely linked to denial. We will do or say anything to make the relationship work again, often making promises to our ex-partner. Dignity and pride can be abandoned in the desire to reconcile. Bargaining with a Higher Power can also occur, for example, making deals with God or the Universe.
This phase involves experiencing anger towards our ex-partner for hurting us by ending the relationship. Anger can also be expressed towards a Higher Power for having allowed this to happen.
Depressive-like symptoms may be prevalent throughout the breakup process. These include tearfulness, low-mood, anxiety, loss of interest in usually enjoyable activities, and disturbances in sleep and appetite. We may experience low energy levels and rely on substances such as alcohol and drugs to numb the emotional pain.
Over time, we gradually accept the reality of the loss and adjust to it. Eventually we are able to let go of the relationship, experiencing renewed hope and meaning in our lives.
The grieving process is specific to each individual and the five stages are not definitive, but rather broad guidelines of what is experienced. However, knowing that grieving is a process serves as a reminder of the importance of giving ourselves the time we need to go through it. This process cannot be bypassed and there is no short-cut. We can only trust that with time the intensity of the emotional pain will ease.
If you came down with a cold or the flu, you would take care of yourself and make sure that you obtained plenty of rest. You would find ways to reduce your stress levels and, if possible, you would take some time off work. It is helpful to think of the pain of a breakup as emotional flu and to take a similar approach.
A New Beginning
A breakup can transform into a breakthrough if we see it as an opportunity for personal growth. As we process the painful feelings and start to look at the relationship honestly – the reasons for it ending and our role in these – we can learn much about ourselves, our relationship patterns and what is important for our happiness. This paves the way for living a more authentic and fulfilling life.
Breakup Survival Guide
- Normalize your emotional reaction
It is important to know that it is normal to feel as if your world is falling apart. All your emotions, from sadness to anger, are to be expected and are experienced by most people going through a breakup. You aren’t crazy for feeling the way you do!
- Don’t be hard on yourself
Recognize that you are going thought a big life change and that you need to give yourself space and time to go through the process of grieving and healing. It may be a cliché, but time really does heal all wounds.
- Feel your feelings
The emotional response to a breakup can feel like an overwhelming and confusing roller coaster ride. However, it is essential not to deny or repress what you are feeling as this will drag out the healing process and amplify the pain in the long run. This, of course, is easier said than done.
Freewriting, which involves writing without editing, can be a therapeutic outlet for venting emotions such as anger and sadness. It can help you to make sense of your feelings and increase your self-awareness. Listening to music can also be useful tool for venting and soothing emotions.
- Find support
Seek out people to whom you can talk honestly and openly about what you are going through – perhaps a trusted friend, family member or, even more helpfully, a therapist. Talking helps to process the painful feelings and avoids them becoming unmanageable and unbearable. If you are experiencing persistent depressive symptoms, it is important to seek out a mental health professional who can assess if you need further support.
- Take care of yourself
A breakup can be an opportunity for us to get to know and understand ourselves better. In a relationship, we can be so focused on the needs of the other person that we neglect our own needs, often resulting in the loss of our sense of self. Our most important relationship is the one we have with ourselves and it is crucial to develop and nurture it.
How to get your life back
- Develop a routine
The structure of a routine provides familiarity and comfort. Knowing what to expect each day can help to alleviate the stress triggered by a breakup.
- Eat regularly and nutritiously
This helps to reduce physiological stress and to stabilise your mood.
This provides an outlet for your emotions, particularly feelings of anger, and helps to control anxiety and depressive symptoms. Stick to your regular exercise routine, or if that feels too much, move in any way you can. Just a short walk in the park on a daily basis can be immensely helpful.
- Explore new interests
In a relationship, we often lose sight of our own interests and passions. Now is the time to try new things such as volunteering, cooking classes, pottery, yoga, dance classes or a book club. This is a great way to make new friends, develop new skills and move on from the relationship. You might wish to try a website such as Meetup which has networking and social get-togethers based on mutual interests.
- Nurture yourself
We often lose touch with our own needs whilst in a relationship, neglecting to make sure these are met. Find and do the things that make you feel good such as taking a bubble bath, watching a movie or reading an inspiring book. Learn to set healthy boundaries between yourself and others. Learn when to say no and how to stand up for yourself in a way that best takes care of you.
“As we process the painful feelings and start to look at the relationship honestly – the reasons for it ending and our role in these – we can learn much about ourselves, our relationship patterns and what is important for our happiness.”
About the author:
Zureida is a well-being consultant based in Johannesburg. She assists clients in exploring emotional blockages, drawing on her psychological training and using tools such as hypnotherapy, EFT and mindfulness. Email: email@example.com