DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m twenty-four years old and I went through my first break up about 6 months ago. She was basically my first everything, and it has pushed me into a really depressive state. Not only do I have to see that person every day, we are in the same graduate program, I also have to see them any time I go out because we share a lot of friends. So, I have to see her flirt and dance with others and it pretty much wrecks my world every time. I’ve always struggled with meeting people and talking to women, hence the first girlfriend I ever had was when I was 24, and this has made it so much worse. It’s as if when I want to talk to people my brain has words, but my mouth and legs just won’t follow. Anyway, apologies if any of that was rambling, but I was wondering if you had any tips for getting over your exes and meeting new people, and for my situation in particular. I just want to be able to move on and it’s starting to feel hopeless.
Broken Hearts Club
DEAR BROKEN HEARTS CLUB: I’m going to start this with something that’s cliche and seemingly unhelpful, but you’ll understand it a little later on:
This too shall pass.
Yeah, I know. Right now life sucks harder than an overclocked Dyson and the fact that you see her out and about feels like someone is kicking your soul in the nuts with big stompy boots. It’s leaving you feeling like you got a few moments in paradise before getting ripped back out of it, making you feel worse than before because now you know what you’re missing.
But as much as it feels like this your life from now on, it really isn’t. This hurts, no question about it. But despite how it feels, you aren’t going to feel like this forever. This isn’t your status quo. Running into your ex will stop feeling like a hammer to the chest. The despair will ease. This pain will fade.
This too shall pass.
Now, I’ve talked a lot about some of the things I wish I’d known before my first relationship. Right now I want to tell you something I’d known before my first break up: your recovery will be faster and leave you in a better place if you take an active hand, rather than nursing those hurt feelings.
It’s hard to feel like there’s hope after your first break up. First relationships feel especially momentous. The limerence that comes with your first “real” relationship – especially one that marks so many firsts – is astounding. It feels like the world is smiling directly at you. You would be forgiven for thinking that you’re going to beat the odds and that this is a relationship that will last the ages.
And then when it falls apart, that sudden emptiness hurts all the more, because you’ve never really had either experience before. And it’s very easy to get lost in that pain. It’s easy to wallow and feel sorry for yourself. And that’s ultimately going to make the healing process take longer.
The thing that folks often don’t realize about break ups is that the pain of a break up doesn’t just come from a broken heart; you’re going through withdrawal. See, when we talk about having chemistry with someone, we’re not just being poetic. It’s literal; love isn’t just an emotion, it’s also chemicals and hormones, oxytocin and serotonin and dopamine all flooding the pleasure centers of your brain. That New Relationship Energy that got you all twitterpated at the beginning of the relationship? That’s the dopamine and oxytocin rush from being with somebody new. And now that you’re no longer with her, you aren’t getting those same feel-good chemicals. You have, in a very real way, been cut of by your dealer and you’re feeling the effects that come with going cold turkey from your primary supply.
Now the good news is that once you’re aware of this, that means you’re able to do something about it.
The first step: make sure you’re not making things harder on yourself by not taking care of yourself. Yeah, when you’re feeling this low, it’s natural to have no energy, no drive and no real interest in doing anything other than sitting around and trying to numb the pain. But all of this ends up making you feel worse. Instead, you want to make sure you’re treating your body and brain well. So if you aren’t already, you want to get fresh air and sunshine. At the very least, you should go out and go for walks. It’s even better if you can go spend some time out in the local park or some other place out in nature.
Yeah I know, “go outside and touch grass” sounds incredibly dismissive, but sunshine and cardiovascular exercise promotes serotonin production in the brain, which helps with regulating stress, anxiety and managing feelings of depression. Plus, having a nice calm place to walk around makes it a little easier to just relax and take things in, instead of feeling cooped up and hemmed in. Appreciate the sounds of life, the wind in the leaves and the feeling of sun on your skin.
You also want to make sure you’re eating well. I love me some burgers as much as the next carnivore and potatoes are probably one of my favorite food groups, but you’re going to want to make sure you’re eating some green leafy vegetables like spinach and lean proteins like chicken and fish. You don’t need to avoid things like sugar or carbs – let’s be real, carbs are like distilled happiness and it’s good to treat yourself – but a good balanced diet will go a long way towards not just upping your serotonin levels, but also remind you that you deserve good things because you treat yourself well. You don’t need to go hardcore about your eating – orthorexia ain’t gonna make things any better – but making sure things are mostly balanced and you’re getting plenty of greens will help immensely.
Next step: clean. Seriously. Clean your apartment. Give it the sort of deep cleaning it likely hasn’t had in months or years. Open the windows and air it out, vacuum and dust the s--t out of everything – the couch, the curtains, the mattress, everything. Wash the windows, scrub the toilets, polish the mirrors and fixtures and counters until they’re spotless. This does two things. First, it eases the clutter and detritus that tends to build up when you’re going through a low period and leaves you feeling more like a person and less like a pile of garbage with school loans. It, like getting out, eating well and exercising, reminds you that you’re a good person who deserves good things, in part because you’re treating yourself like someone who deserves good things. But also the satisfaction of cleaning helps give little hits of dopamine – a sort of chemical reward for accomplishing those tasks.
It sounds weird, but accomplishing those little tasks help give dopamine hits that encourage you to keep going. That’s part of the appeal of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley – you’ve got a series of easily completed chores that bring a sense of satisfaction. They’re not real, but your brain accepts them as real. So it is with accomplishing similar tasks in the real world: the satisfaction with getting it done boosts your dopamine levels and you have a cleaner, less oppressive place to live.
When you’re done cleaning, look at some other things you may have been putting off. This is a good time to get some long-neglected tasks or chores done. Keeping busy will give your mind something else to focus on, while the dopamine will help you feel better.
Speaking of feeling better, you want to get some endorphins flowing as well. Endorphins are a complex series of hormones that decrease pain and generally increase feelings of happiness and well-being. Right now your brain isn’t producing much of them… but you can change that. There a few ways to increase endorphin production, and virtually all of them are easily within your grasp.
Meditation, especially mindfulness meditation is a good start. So is laughter; it;’s hard to want to laugh when you’re feeling this low, but finding things that tickle your funny-bone and get at least a smile out of you will help. Going out to see a comedian, getting some friends together to watch a favorite comedy, even just hanging out with folks who can make you laugh will help boost your mood, generate an endorphin spike and help chase away the gloom you’re feeling.
But what about oxytocin? Well, there’s a reason why oxytocin is called the love hormone; we produce a lot of it when we cuddle, when we have sex or otherwise are in physical contact with our partners. When our partners leave us, we don’t have access to those same triggers… but that doesn’t mean you’re s--t out of luck. It just means you need to start being willing to not look at your partner as your sole source of physical touch. One of the areas where men are disadvantaged over women is how much we isolate ourselves, physically. Women don’t have the same social taboos around physical touch and affection with friends and loved ones that men do. The hugs, casual touch and physical contact women get from their friends helps keep their oxytocin levels up.
Now, it can be a little hard to go to your friends and say “hey, I need a hug” if you all don’t have that kind of friendship already. You can certainly work towards building that with your friends, but in the sort term, you may want to look to other options. One of the most easily accessible options would be massage – a 60 minute Swedish massage will help with both the skin hunger and the general sense of well-being. Social dancing – like salsa or ballroom – can help too, as well as giving you more opportunities for exercise.
All of these will help with the withdrawal aspect of your break up and make you feel like a functioning human being again. It’ll ease your pain and give you hope for the future. And that part’s going to be important, because part of healing from a break up is recognizing that relationships don’t happen by chance. You need to put active effort into them. By taking care of yourself and making a point of being an active participant in your own life – taking steps to make yourself feel better, being more social and enjoying your life overall – you’re carving the pathways in your brain that encourage you to take more active steps with other people, too. Getting out and being social – even if it means risking seeing your ex – is important. You need to remember that life does go on, even if it feels like your world has ended. You can take a few minutes on the ground to catch your breath and say “well, s--t” but then you have to get back up on your feet and start over.
The sooner you remember the “get back on your feet” part , the sooner you recover. The sooner you recover, the sooner you’ll realize that seeing your ex doesn’t hurt as much, that you’re feeling better about yourself and that while this relationship ended, that’s not the end of relationships.
It sucks. It feels bad. But there is hope out there. You will feel better, sooner rather than later, if you work at it.
This, too, shall pass.
You’ll be ok. I promise.
All will be well.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com