Research from psychology and neuroscience now confirms what poets and artists and songwriters have always known: the end of romantic connection can be a searing and devastating world of pain. The nervous system interprets emotional pain in the way that it processes physical pain. This is often captured in the somatic reactions to loss: loss of appetite or excessive eating; numbness and dissociation; heightened anxiety and vigilance; compulsive behavior; depression.
The end of a relationship is the beginning of grief, a nervous system on fire and in danger. Especially if the loss is unexpected, sudden or unwanted, the ending of a relationship can be type of traumatic experience. The sting of heartbreak is often a wake-up call, an opportunity to regroup, reassess, and move towards a stronger, and more resilient version of yourself.
The deeper and more significant heartbreaks are often opportunities to revisit our unfinished emotional business. When the end of a romantic bond is especially difficult, one place to look to is unfinished emotional business from other domains of life, namely other significant romantic relationships and the first relationships from our families of origin.
The loss of connection can often point towards ways that we have experienced loss in other periods of time in our life and also our responses to ruptures in emotional bonds from childhood. This is the fortunate unfortunate silver lining of a hard break up: the opportunity to revisit and reclaim parts of ourselves that require healing. The type of healing that supports us in making new, stable connections as we shift from the connections we inherit from our families of origin to the connections of choice we create with romantic partners.
Entering a period of grief often requires commitment to moving through it’s stages from disillusionment to bargaining followed by anger and ultimately acceptance. In a culture where change happens ever more rapidly, it is counterintuitive to allow the time and space for the grief of a relationship ending to express itself. The most critical first step in mending from a break up is acknowledging the loss. It happened, it’s significant, and hard. From there, the healing can begin.
Here are 7 of my tips for soothing and healing your nervous system:
1. Remember the basics: The wracking nerves of anxiety can easily distract away from life’s basic tasks. Eat regular meals, keep up with your sleep routine, spend time with people
2. Exercise and move: Depression and withdrawal can quickly set in, leaving one unmotivated and despondent. despite the entropy, be sure to move the body. Remember: exercise can be a great antidepressant
3. Adopt a mindfulness practice: The family of meditations called ‘Compassion Practices’ offer care and much needed loving to tender hearts. An example is this heart-tending practice by meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg https://www.mindful.org/a-compassion-practice-for-opening-the-heart/
4. Get support: Friends, a therapist, support group, using resources through Mend, or a wise and trusted elder or mentor
5. Take a social media fast: as tempting as keeping tabs on your ex’s social media account can be, take a week or two sabbatical from checking likes and keeping tabs on them
6. Take a break from dating: spend some time processing. A nice rule of thumb is to take a week break for each year of the relationship
7. Be careful with alcohol and drugs: like most of us, you may be tempted to use substances to numb or distract away from the pain