The Psychological Effects of A Breakup


Ade Holder

There’s no sugar-coating the fact that breakups can be incredibly tough to deal with and when a relationship ends, it can have a devastating effect on our mental well-being. These days more and more people are turning to psychotherapy to deal with a range of issues including dealing with the loss felt during a breakup. The physical symptoms after a breakup are not a myth. They include loss of appetite and acne caused by the stress of the breakup. It’s a pain that almost everyone goes through at some stage or another, but what really happens to our psychological state when we’re suffering heartache?

Breakups Are Akin to Physical Pain

MRI brain scans and other neuroscience technology studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same parts of the brain which are activated when addicts go through withdrawal symptoms for drugs like cocaine or opioids. It also sends the same signals your body pays attention to when you’re in physical pain. The MRI scans showed that there were several areas of the brain which showed activity when the study participants looked at pictures of their former partners, including the areas which are part of the brains reward or motivation system. This is what communicates the release and delivery of dopamine – a hormone involved in both drug addiction and the early stages of love.

Dopamine causes us to try and find the love object, hence why we spend days thinking about the other person. It’s for this very reason that it can be so incredibly hard for us to move on to a relationship with someone else. We tend to idealize our exes and distort the memories we have with them. We romanticise the reality and forge an idea in our minds of what life with them is like when often it’s not the truth.

They Cause Us to Self-Deprecate

When we reflect on the time of a relationship, it often leads us to question what we did to cause the rejection. It’s all too easy to assume that the reason our partner left us is due to a fault in our personality or physical appearance. It seems that rejection leads us to question or change the view we have of ourselves, perceiving our personality as toxic and negative, which leads us to feel inadequate. But this pessimistic connection between a relationship ending and self-worth can lead to becoming more guarded with new partners and potentially ruining future relationships as a result by putting up emotional walls.

Being Broken Up With Is Harder on Us Than Breaking Up With Someone

A difficult aspect of breakups is the notion of being broken up with by someone and imagining that the person initializing the breakup is living their best life now that you’re out of the picture. The reason why we find it so much more emotionally taxing to be broken up with than to break up with someone ourselves is that while the breakup feels sudden to the person being rejected, their partner has likely not been emotionally invested in the relationship for a long time. This means that by the time the breakup occurs, the individual has already accepted the relationship ending and has had time to process that mentally. The rejected partner is still at the other end of the spectrum, experiencing the early stages of grief, loss, and sadness.

A Healthier Way to End A Relationship

Not all breakups have a negative impact on us psychologically and there are ways to have a healthier outlook on a relationship ending. For those with a lesser connection between being rejected and how they see themselves, the emotional impact of a breakup will be much less. These people often see a breakup as just a fact of life and an experience that is sometimes necessary.

Others may choose to see it as evidence that they were not well-suited for the other person, rather than it being their fault that the match wasn’t successful. Studies have shown that the brains of these types of rejected partners show activity in the prefrontal cortex and the cingulate gyrus, which are connected to regulating emotions and impulsive reactions. What these suggest is that some people are simply wired to cope better with recovery and decision-making, as well as cravings and obsessive behaviors, than others.

To minimize the psychological impact of a breakup, regardless of how your brain reacts, there are ways you can help yourself move through it more easily. Try making a list of the compromises you made in the relationship, so you’ll know what to avoid settling for in the next relationship and increase the things you enjoy doing, even if they don’t seem interesting or enjoyable at the time. Going through the motions with your usual hobbies and interests will help to signal to yourself mentally that your life is moving on. You should also reach out to people you trust and make the most of the support offered to you from friends and family.

Lastly, if you're feeling overwhelmed by your feelings or hopeless, make sure you lean on free help resources or, if you're able to, talk to someone one-on-one. You don't need to go through this alone. You can also download the Mend app for science-backed advice and a virtual community.

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