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.
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.
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.