Dr. Robi Ludwig: From Breakup to Breakthrough
Nothing can deflate an ego or jab you through the heart more than a romantic relationship gone bad. Rejection is never easy, but it’s especially tough when it comes from the person you’ve built so many of your fantasies and life dreams around.
Let’s face it, we live in a world that idealizes love, romance and relationships. It feels good to be part of a couple, even when we really like who we are and enjoy our own company. So when a breakup happens, it tends to set into motion many of our insecurities, self-doubts and obsessional thinking.
Your Brain on A Breakup
As a NYC psychotherapist, breakups are one of the top problems Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D., helps patients work through in treatment. Why? Because breakups hurt! They hurt emotionally, they hurt physically, and are often used as one more way to prove one’s lack of “lovability” in the romance department.
Researchers have long been fascinated by why these unwanted breakups affect us the way they do. Most people understand feeling rejected and dejected are common experiences. So is the feeling of being unable to let go; even when you should and really want to. Family and friends might push you to get over the relationship-gone-bad and just move on, yet brain researchers have a new understanding about why this may be easier said than done; especially during the first few months after a relationship ends.
It’s Ok to Miss Your Ex- Science Says So
The following studies to determine how breakups affect the brain were done on unmarried college students, but they still give us some insight into why these events are so emotionally tough to tolerate. MRI’s, known as functional Magnetic resonance imaging brain scans, show some interesting activity in several specific areas of the brain, when the rejected individual sees a photo of their ex. The scientists who conducted this study found the same areas of the brain lit up including the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, known to be associated with the experience of physical pain.
And there may be a physiological reason for craving our ex, too. MRI’s recorded brain activity of people who recently experienced a break up, but still felt love for their ex. When viewing photographs of their former partners, activity in the area of the brain associated with reward and motivation, specifically, the release of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and addiction. The love lorn experiences cravings for an ex, in a similar way that a drug addict craves drugs.
The evolutionary explanation for this could be nature’s way of protecting us. In the wild, our chance of sidestepping predators, are increased when we are part of a group vs. alone. Social rejection may have at one time been an actual threat to our physical survival for our early ancestors. If this is true, it could explain why it’s so difficult to let go of an ex and move on.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
The good news is, despite the short term pain caused by breakups, the longer term findings show most people are resilient and recover from them. Other studies show brain activity in the craving parts of the brain also decreased as time goes on. The similarity to addiction may give those experiencing a break up, a framework to better understand the intensity of their feelings. As is true for addicts dealing with addictions, it helps to have a supportive network, where you can find a group of people you can rely on for emotional support.
It’s important to have people you can turn to when you’re tempted to call that ex and/or just regress in general. And if people, places or activities associated with your past relationship or your ex, trigger your cravings, it might be best to avoid them all together, and add some new routines into your life repertoire.
Breakups although painful, shouldn’t be viewed as failures. They should be viewed as lessons. There is always hope for a loving future. Why not view the pain from a break up as growing pains instead? Growing pains to the gateway of a new and improved life, you’re about to venture into.
(Author note: Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D. is a nationally known psychotherapist and award winning reporter. She has been appearing on broadcast media since 1997, and is sought after for her psychological insights on a wide range of topics.)