An open letter to anyone who’s recently loved and lost:
I’m happy for you. I’m happy that you’ve gotten to experience the joy of finding belonging and intimacy with another human being. Romantic relationships may not be the most important thing in the world, but man, are they fun. We thrive off of them, cling to them, even change ourselves for them, and it’s little wonder why. When it’s healthy and true, love is simultaneously an abundant source of euphoria and comfort. It’s waking up in someone’s arms, feeling their warm breath on the nape of your neck, and drifting back to sleep knowing that if a murderer breaks into your house, they’ve literally got your back. While it may look different for each of us, all who’ve loved can look back through the archives of their memories and find quiet, treasured moments of their own.
And in this way, I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry because I know that just as you have experience the high of love—and make no mistake, it is a high—you’ve no doubt also experienced the terrible ache of its absence when you lose it. The reasons why we love someone may not always be clear, but the effects of love on the body are. They’re chemical, measurable. We become addicts, more entrenched in our attachment with every kiss and touch. Yet while there’s no substitute for the healing effects of time, our ability to move forward after a breakup is not immutable. By manipulating the same chemicals that spiked when in love, you can nip your symptoms of withdrawal in the bud after cupid kicks you to the curb.
The simplest way to do that is by starting with the small stuff, because it’s the little things that hurt most after a breakup, isn’t it? We get so used to going through the motions of a regular day with someone that when we lose them, something as simple as waking up alone can feel like torture. My solution is to map out the mundane, going through your average day and pinpointing places that might agitate your grief so you can set yourself up for success.
It starts like this:
I would feel comfortable betting a healthy sum that this is the worst place in the house for most people after a breakup. It’s well known by now that physical caresses and touch stimulate your production of oxytocin which greatly improves your mood while triggering a slew of other health benefits. Losing that sucks, but I’m going to tell you how to get around it. What you need to do is get yourself a stuffed animal. I’m serious. Grab an old friend from the depths of your closet or buy yourself a brand new one and get used to falling asleep with it in your arms. Why? Hugging a stuffed animal can have an almost identical effect to that of hugging a partner in bed. I’d love to suggest rescuing a dog or cat, given that they do the same thing, but since that’s not realistic for most people, stuffed elephant it is.
In my family, food is love. That’s how my parents and relatives have always treated me, so that’s how I treat my significant other. Cooking a meal is so much more fun when you have a partner—someone to swing you around the island and warn you when a pot is about to boil over. The task at hand becomes reinventing that simple chore so you learn to have just as much fun with yourself. One of the easiest ways to do that is with music. Time and time again, music has been linked to an increase in dopamine, the happy hormone that was being regularly stimulated by your partner’s company. That’s ZZ Top’s job now. Throw on a playlist you love and cook away. A few glasses of nice wine might help too. Note that I said a few glasses, mind you. Not bottles.
This is a tough one. Not only may you be used to riding shotgun alongside your significant other, making a solo car ride lonely, but you’re trapped in there—just you and your gloomy post-breakup thoughts. No one wants to have to dodge the sad songs that come up on the radio. You know good and well that the little masochist in you will keep one of them on, and then you’ll end up crying all the way to work. My solution? Audio books. These are great in the car because you really need to focus on the story so you don’t lose track of the plot. It gives your mind less space to wander around in those empty mental rooms left by your ex. What’s more, recent research suggests that even just hearing another human’s voice makes you feel less lonely by stimulating your production of oxytocin. Now that’s a productive distraction!
It’s common for people to become exercise buddies with their significant other. Maybe you were members of the same gym, went on hikes, runs, bike rides, did yoga together in your living room, etc. The role exercise plays in your mood and overall well being goes without saying, but it can’t be overstated. It’s normal for anyone experiencing a depressive state during or after a breakup to want to withdraw from physical activity, but giving in to the lethargy caused by sadness will just make you feel worse. Your brain on exercise is a better brain. Period. Sunshine and the great outdoors can boost your levels of several neurotransmitters that positively affect mood too. Don’t neglect exercise because it reminds you of when you had an exercise buddy. Find a new one to get outside and active with, or just learn to enjoy it by yourself.
The point of all of this is to find ways to connect those happy chemicals your brain makes with new memories and activities that are wholly and independently yours, especially when it comes to the minutia of your daily life. You have the power to identify all the things that brought you joy with your old partner and rewrite the story so that you can still derive joy from those things without them. Go play pool with your friends instead of your ex. Go to the beach by yourself with a good book. And along the way, acknowledge that this is hard and forgive yourself for those inevitable moments of weakness in advance. Better yet, do as I’ve suggested and plan for them. Making a game plan for dealing with daily triggers is incredibly empowering. It’s not easy and it will take time for your brain to rewire, but boosting your production of certain neurotransmitters can greatly accelerate the process. If nothing else, try and keep in mind why you broke up in the first place. I’d be willing to bet there was a good reason. If you can hang onto that in moments when you feel weak or sad, the road forward will be that much easier to walk.
- How to Trick Your Brain into Getting over a Breakup Fast - September 4, 2019