How to get over a breakup

This month, no fewer than three of my friends have pressed me into service as a breakup counselor. And if three of them are actually telling me about it, that means there are another 300 out there who are not.

So in the interest of helping out all of those suffering in silence now or in the future, I’m compiling a list of interventions that many have found useful in handling such matters of the heart. Let’s start with the non-negotiable one first:

1) Break contact completely.

We’ve all heard of drugged-out celebrities going to rehab, but ever wonder what actually happens there? The first thing rehab does is to keep the patient away from his drug of choice. His brain’s been so lit up by his habit that neuronal receptors for the drug are now screaming for another fix like a million hungry chicks.

Well, your ex-lover operates on your brain just like that drug, so now you need to detox, too. You need to give your brain time to get rid of all those extra receptors so it can return to some semblance of normal functioning.

This means no talking to your ex, no casual hanging out as ‘friends’ (whatever!), no “I hate you but I miss you” text messages, and most definitely no ex-sex, geez (note: all three of my broken-up friends violated this last rule – bad kitty). In this case, by ‘complete cessation of contact’ we mean complete cessation of contact – for 2-3 weeks at the very minimum. At this stage you’re basically a recovering crack addict, just as vulnerable and dangerous, and it’s going to take you that long before you can re-enter polite society without being a weeping, blathering mess.

2) Get moving.

After my very first breakup in college, I remember becoming a running fiend. The solitary rhythm of breathing, heartbeat and footfalls helped take me out of my head and into a healing space of the body.

There’s no doubt about it: exercise has remarkable healing powers. Time and time again, studies have shown it to be at least as effective as antidepressants in improving mood. And you don’t have to wait 2 months for it to start working – it works immediately. Not only does it flood your body with feelgood endorphins, but it also just makes you feel more alive.

It’s also a lot cheaper than a therapist. I would also highly recommend hatha yoga, especially kundalini yoga which tends to move a lot of energy through your body.

3) Reframe.

Events have no meaning by themselves. Our minds give them meaning depending on context, experience and expectation. Change those and you change the meaning. Change the meaning, and you change the way your body reacts to the whole episode (ie feeling a hell of a lot less crappy).

I’ll never forget this one rough breakup I had in my mid-twenties. After several breakup-makeup episodes, I thought I was deeply in love with this woman who frankly wasn’t treating me well. Then when I found out that she had neglected to mention a fiancé she had in Europe (while declaring her undying love for me – minor oversight I’m sure), I was able to gain perspective and say to myself, “Wow – I really dodged that bullet!” And I felt a little sorry for the guy in Europe who ended up marrying her. In retrospect, it’s kind of a funny story.

So go to a time 5-10 years in the future, when you’re with a fantastic companion who really adds to your life. Maybe you even have kids, and one of them is sitting on your lap. Then recall that breakup way back when which felt like the end of the world, but just makes for a funny story now. And pat your kid on the head, appreciating the healthy perspective that he provides just by sitting there. You have total permission to bring that great feeling to the present moment, as you look back on that breakup as an ancient and mildly entertaining event. Such a crazy kid you were!

4) Recontextualize and practice gratitude.

So she done you wrong. She didn’t call you back. She called you names, then showed up at your doorstep in tears and had make-up sex, then disappeared again and stopped returning your phone calls, re-ripping out your heart, putting it in a blender and feeding it to miniature Schnauzers.

Well, that’s pretty terrible alright. But in the cosmic order of things, with the Syrian government massacring innocent kids, thousands stranded in refugee camps in Darfur, South African women being systematically raped, and millions living in slums in Mumbai, you’re actually doing pretty well. Maybe watching this video of motivational speaker Nick Vujicic who still finds ways to smile every day in spite of having no arms or legs will put your all-encompassing but ultimately minor misery into its proper context. And when you realize how good you have it, practice gratitude – for working hearts, lungs, legs, arms, eyes, loving family and friends, a roof over your head, clean clothes, a computer and an internet connection allowing you to read this, which means you are better off than 99.999% of humans who have ever lived. (Also, you are alive, and most humans who have ever lived are not. You win.)

5) Jumble up the memory.

Your memory does not operate like a hard drive. It’s more like a game of Telephone, where every time you evoke a memory, it’s reconstructed slightly differently from the way it was before.

Turns out that this low-fidelity feature of memory is useful to exploit, especially when it comes to breakups and other psychological discomfort. So what you want to do is to re-evoke the memories – specifically, the recurring ones that are giving you the most trouble. As you do that, now add extraneous distracting and amusing details to it. Have monkeys swooping through the air and throwing rotten bananas at you. Add a Looney Tunes soundtrack to the proceedings. Fill the room with foam that smells like bubble gum, pumpkin pie, or cow pie. Having his head come out of a hippo’s butt while he speaks in a Donald Duck voice will make it very difficult to take the ex seriously.

Having done this exercise, when you go to bed and the memory gets reconsolidated during sleep, it won’t be the same. And part of its sting will be gone. Do this three or four days in a row, get creative with it, and watch the memory lose its power over you altogether.

6) Use effective therapeutic interventions

I have never understood what psychologists actually do. They seem to primarily function as friends paid to listen to you while promising not to speak to your other friends. With the exception of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), I have found little in their therapeutic toolkit that gives consistent results – y’know, like making someone feel less miserable without drugs, snap out of a bad relationship, quit a dead-end job.

That said, CBT does work. And other interventions that go directly to the substrate of the mind and jumble up neuronal connections also work. I have used a version of eye movement desensitization response (EMDR) therapy, and it has worked every time in reducing the intensity of a negative feeling. Tapping, or emotional freedom therapy (EFT) also worked every time, as strange as it may seem. And, as a practicing hypnotherapist, I can tell you that hypnotherapy works remarkably well for such things.

7) Take acetaminophen.

In a lecture, the renowned Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky recounts how one colleague came to him with the crazy notion: what if we could treat social pain with painkillers?

There is precedent for this. Scientists have found that our brains register physical pain and social-emotional pain in the same regions of the brain – namely, the anterior cingulate and the insula. The same parts of your brain light up whether you’re poked in the eye or get dumped.

Nevertheless, Sapolsky thought this ridiculous; the colleague secretly did the experiment anyway. Turns out that you can treat social pain with painkillers – Tylenol, specifically (acetaminophen or paracetamol, depending on where you’re from). Take a regular dose, drink lots of water with it, and don’t mix with alcohol. Which brings us to…

8) Avoid alcohol.

Alcohol is a depressant, and the last thing you need in your body when you’re on the brink of depression is a depressant. It’s also a very dangerous drug. I’ll never forget my med school pharmacology professor’s lecture slide showing how alcohol would never be approved as a drug if it were to be presented to the FDA today.

The main danger of alcohol is that it has a very narrow therapeutic window. The difference between a dose that’s useful (‘buzzed’) vs a dose that’s toxic (‘wasted’, ‘shit-faced’, ‘blacked-out’, ‘dead’) is small. So drinking while bummed out is a really, really bad idea. There are safer and easier ways of leaving your misery behind. Namely…

9) Get out of dodge.

If you’ve been living in a particular town with someone, the whole place is going to be strewn with shared memories. While you’re together, this gives you that nice coochie-coo snuggly feeling everywhere you go. Of course, after you break up, these shared locales turn into poison-tipped porcupine needles jabbed straight into your cardiac muscle. And if you shared living space together, you’re basically living in an emotional minefield ready to explode into a shower of Adele-induced tears any second.

This needs to stop. And the best way to stop is to get out of town. Go far away, to a place with so much novelty that your brain’s too excited to be able to dwell on the past. And if the place has some eye candy of the desirable sex, so much the better.

10) Meditate

I saved this one for last for one big reason: it’s the most important item in the list. When you’re in a state like depression or addiction over which you feel you have no control, it seems like your mind is cruelly betraying you. Regular meditation is one of the few tools that can help you run your mind better. Think of it as vaccination against psychic trauma. When you meditate regularly, you reduce the intensity and duration of adverse events before they happen. And if you continue meditating regularly, you make the whole ordeal easier to bear. If you do not practice meditation regularly, today is a great time to start. Vaccines work best when you apply them in advance.

7 Comments on “How to get over a breakup”

  1. Renee

    Oy, this is very welcome advice, as I am in the midst of an excruciating, heart-wrenching break-up after a very intense 3 month relationship (complete with 3-week road trip and feelings of potential marriage). The split was sudden and total (no contact after said-road trip). Our sex was the best either of us had had – by leaps and bounds. Our verbal rapport was unparalleled. I was besotted with this fellow. I find your advice helpful – although doesn’t really address the need we have to ‘make sense of’ what happened. To some degree, we may never know, but I woke this morning with a dreadful feeling and thought: “I killed our relationship! I was too needy! I didn’t give him the space he needed!” I was aware this was a truly horribly thought, but there it was. It’s really hard to move forward when you feel like you may have just sabotaged one of the most valuable relationships in your life. I’d love to hear your thoughts and philosophy on this. I am aware of the tendency people have to say, “well it just wasn’t right, it’s not that you failed or did something wrong.” But as a truth-seeker, I want to really know. How do you advise navigating that terrain… Just curious.
    Thanks as always for your writings.

  2. Nana

    Dr. Ali Dearest,

    It’s been more than a year that I am one lucky owner of your “Tao of Dating”. It is on my bed side along with some eternal pieces like “Hundred Years of Solitude”, “Master and Margaret” and…no, not Bible, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius – see, I am keeping you in worthy company, Salve!
    I bought your book while being in shape and form of crumbled Graham cookies and believe me, keeping up the appearances, i.e. smiling, joking, socializing was only adding the hardship of keeping my sanity.
    I can sign under every line you’ve written, especially in Part 1) Break the contact… As you and my very dear friend Mary said – I was like drug addict in this poisonous relationship, I needed my fix, ready to pay any price and after go into deeper pain. Nothing helped, I was living in some illusion, with hope that one day everything will change…nah, nada, niente.. There were hide and seek games, there were escapes (yeah, I was traveling even overseas for more than a month just to come back more missing and more vulnerable to manipulation), but nothing worked until I hit the bottom – apparently even an abyss has a bottom. I had to be sick and tired of being sick and tired. And I had “This too shall pass” line as a background in my brain.
    Now it’s been more than 2 months that I’ve blocked my Demon from all possible contact, changed my phone number and started to calm down. Do you know what helped me a lot? Yes, Gratitude. I am having my monologues (almost Hamlet…) and thanking him for exceptional emotions he made me feel. For showing me completely different Nana, for all joy and sadness, for finally understanding the core meaning of the Serenity Prayer and not hating him even when my soul was bleeding.Now I have a story to remember and perhaps even to joke about…later.)))
    In short, I don’t want to abuse your kindness with my story. Just want you to know that you helped me a lot to arrive to my lucid state and your book is still beside my bed; I am returning to your wisdom at least once a week just to refresh some points and simply enjoy your work.
    Ladies, who doesn’t have it – get it!
    Guru, my best!
    Thank you!

  3. Pablo Schwartz

    “But in the cosmic order of things, with the Syrian government massacring innocent kids ..” um, not sure what leaving the nation of Syria at the mercy of Saudi mercenaries has t’do with a kettle of fish, but i’m sure the folks at Reuters appreciate your efforts.

    1. Dreamadonna

      Yeah, I was thinking that. I understand the point the writer was trying to make, but it read a little insensitive. Some people already feel guilty for their negative thoughts and anguish. They don’t need help realizing that in the grand scheme, their issues may not be life and death like the things described in this article. But a person can only know what it is to be who they are and to have experienced whatever challenges they have experienced in life. Comparing issues in your own life from 10 yrs ago to things in your life now sort of makes sense. But comparing your personal bouts of dealing with inner demons and pain to the pain of those being systematically raped (etc.) is apples and oranges, and seems counterproductive and further damaging.

  4. Bryan Dating

    Thank you Dr Ali, for all of your excellent insight. I myself have just got over a pretty bad breakup, matter of fact it was almost about two weeks ago. The healing process is slow but gradual. Thank you again.

  5. Olivia

    I was a easy girl and didn’t mind to have sex in first date. eventually I understand I didn’t get any longterm relationship. men are disappeared without notice.

    I read your book and power of pussy together and I decided not to give in. The first guy, I didn’t give in, but he really like me, but I didn’t. He really want to have sex with me, a few day later when he had a date and got sex. he run to that woman rightaway.

    The second guy, I really like him. He want sex on second date. I was thinking too soon and expect to see him more. unfortunately, he went to his hometown and met a woman. he said he like that woman and never see me again.

    I feel sad with broken heart when I lose my second guy. I’m wondering some say sex doesn’t mean anything to men, they can have sex anywoman. It was true I wasted 3 years with wrong guys.

    But I recently found out that my two guys run after sex and they don’t turn back to me as good woman with bright future.

    Ali, you are a man, could you please explain to me what’s in men’s mind.