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Heartbroken this Valentine’s? Think of yourself as a recovering addict, experts say

The month of February can be particularly brutal for those muddling through the painful feelings of a breakup. Here, experts give clinical, proven, and practical tools to help you cope  
Nana Caragay | Feb 10 2019

What’s worse than being single on Valentine’s Day? We’ll tell you: being heartbroken. Studies show that the trauma of heartache is so real it can manifest as physical pain, like stomachaches or a heaviness in your chest. Worse still is having to endure this during Valentine’s, AKA Single Awareness Day, when myths of happily-ever-after and sales of flowers and chocolates and romantic getaways go into overdrive. That, paired with a sudden hyper-awareness of seemingly blissful couples all around, is enough to drive an otherwise sane person, well, crazy.

That is the premise of psychologist Guy Winch’s popular TED Talk, aptly titled “How to Fix a Broken Heart.” He delves into heartache, an experience many of us will unfortunately have to go through, and the challenges it can pose to even the most strong-minded and well-adjusted individuals. One helpful piece of information that he offers is this: don’t think of yourself as heartbroken. Think of yourself as an addict who is going through recovery.

“Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love activates the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids,” he said. “Addicts know they’re addicted. They know when they’re shooting up. Heartbroken people do not. But you do now.

We discussed this with a psychiatrist, Irrisse Sison, and a psychologist and sex therapist, Rica Cruz, and both agreed. “The feeling of being in love closely resembles an addiction,” Sison notes. “When we are in love, the neurotransmitter for pleasure is released, giving us a high. Whenever these levels are low, as in during heartbreak, we will seek out the experience in the hopes of getting that high from the love object again—checking his social media accounts, reminiscing our best memories, talking to him again, or becoming intimate after the breakup.”   

Photograph from Pexels

“For some people, pain can be addicting,” adds Cruz. “Pleasure and pain have the same receptors. There are people who would really look for that kind of pain because that’s when they feel that they can actually feel. Pleasure and pain, they can mix.”

So what, then, can a person do to break the cycle? Just as a smoker might turn to another oral fixation, like vaping or chewing nicotine gum, Sison recommends turning to something else to give you the equivalent hit. “More than telling yourself not to do these things, it’s better if there is a replacement activity. Eat, watch motivational videos, call a friend, post something on social media, do some research about heartbreak and coping—try and replace the urge to reminisce, or reach out to your ex with another activity.”

Cruz also suggests establishing new routines that will allow you to feel like yourself again and prevent missing the old behaviors you and your ex used to engage in, like those lunchbreak “have you eaten yet” texts or weekend date nights. Instead, make plans with friends, explore new hobbies, or hit the gym. “Basically, you want to cut the old routines, cut the cycle. These can help as it can foster happiness and a sense of self-worth. Physiologically—endorphins!”

One of the rituals Winch recommends is making a list in your phone of all the pet peeves and things your ex did that annoyed you, then referring to it every time you find yourself falling into the all-too-common mistake of idealizing the relationship. Sison echoes the advice as “a way to reframe your thoughts. We tend to mourn what we have lost and put the person on a pedestal—he was perfect, there is no one who can take his place, I won’t ever be in love again... our thinking is highly emotional rather than rational, so we need to remind ourselves, rationally. Why did this breakup have to happen? What have you learned? Why is he potentially harmful? Why did it not work out? Why are you better off single, even if you are hurting? This will not only help you cope, but ground yourself again and help you realize that your partner was not all good.”  

Cruz notes that allowing negative feelings toward your ex can be helpful, but warns against languishing in that space for too long: “Most of the time, when I do therapy for people who just broke up, they have a hard time accepting that they’re angry because our ‘culture’ does not allow it,” she observes. “You’re taught to forgive and put up a façade. People see you as bitter if you tell them you’re angry at your ex. There are a lot of people who cannot accept the anger. However, once you’ve gone through that, if you don’t look at the good side of things, you may get stuck in the anger phase. If you want to get to acceptance, you also have to look at and acknowledge the good things that happened.”

Photograph by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

And just as one way to kick a bad habit is to quit cold turkey, both our psychiatrist and sex therapist agree: cutting off all contact is a good thing. “Post-breakup, your emotions are very high; you feel a sense of longing for the person who hurt you. Give yourself the space to grieve, heal, and recover—you won’t recover if you’re repeatedly exposed to the hurtful person or situation,” Sison points out.

“The operative word when you try to stay friends with your ex is ‘try,’” Cruz adds with a laugh. “It’s important that you process what happened by yourself first, without the other person involved.”   

Another metaphor Winch uses in his TED Talk is that, unlike so many often-repeated clichés, heartbreak is not a journey. Instead, think of it as a battle, a war within your own mind. And just as you need weapons to fight, these coping mechanisms and behaviors will help you survive, recover, and win. Now that you’re armed, let the rehab begin.

Rica Cruz is on Twitter and Instagram @_ricacruz. Irrisse Sison’s clinic is located at Rm. 201 Mirasol Bldg. cor. Apacible St., Taft Ave., Manila. To set an appointment, call 782-6062 or message clinic secretary Ma’am Arlene at (0905) 516-8165.       

 

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