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How to heal a broken heart

Why? Why are we, even if we are incredibly strong and determined in other areas of our lives, unable to use the same emotional resources to get over the person we love? Why do so many of us struggle when we're trying to overcome heartbreak? Why do the same coping mechanisms that get us through all kinds of life challenges do not work when our heart gets broken?

When your heart is crushed, the same instincts you ordinarily rely on will time and again lead you down the wrong path. You simply cannot trust what your brain is telling you.

Studies of heartbroken people show that having a clear understanding of why the relationship ended is very important for our capacity to move on. Yet repeatedly, when we are given a simple and honest explanation like “I can’t marry you!” or "I just don't feel the same for you as you feel for me!", we reject it. Heartbreak creates such dramatic emotional pain that our mind tells us the cause must be evenly dramatic. And that impulse is so dominant, it can make even the most rational and measured of us come up with stories and conspiracy theories where none exist. And so we spend innumerable hours going through every minute of weeks in our minds, searching our memory for evidence that is not there.

Heartbreak is far more deceptive than we realise. There is a reason we do this to ourselves, even when we know it's going to make us feel worse. Brain studies have shown that the withdrawal of romantic love arouses the same mechanisms in our brain that get activated when addicts are withdrawing from substances like cocaine or opioids.

No breakup explanation's going to feel satisfying. No reason can take away the pain you feel. So don't wait for one, just accept the one you were offered or makeup one yourself and then stop, because you need that closure to resist the addiction. And you need something else as well: you have to be willing to let go, to accept that it's over. Otherwise, your mind will feed on your hope and set you back. Hope can be incredibly destructive when your heart is broken.

One of the most common tendencies we have, when our heart is broken, is to idealise the person who broke it. We remember how the other person made us feel, the deep conversations and the laughter. And we forget the fight at the restaurant, the criticism we had to bear up, and the hours when we were questioning the relationship ourselves.

You have to balance them out by remembering their raised eyebrows, not just their smile, how sad they made you feel, the reality that after the lovemaking, you got lost in the city centre of Amsterdam, argued like crazy and didn't speak for two days.

Your memory will try to tell you they were flawless. But they were not, and neither was the relationship. And if you want to get over them, you have to remind yourself of that regularly.

Maybe you know all of this, and you ask yourself, ”What's wrong with me? What adult takes almost a year getting over a one-year relationship?" Actually, many do.

Heartbreak has all the signs of traditional loss and grief: insomnia, intrusive thoughts, immune system dysfunction. Almost half of the people experience clinically measurable depression. Heartbreak affects us in a multitude of ways. You lose your social contacts, habits and an environment you felt safe in.

To heal your broken heart, you have to recognise these voids in your life and fill them, all of them. The voids in your identity: you have to reestablish who you are and what your life is about. The voids in your social life, the missing activities, even the empty spaces on the wall where photos used to hang. But none of that will do any good unless you stop the mistakes that can set you back, the unnecessary searches for explanations, glorifying your ex instead of focusing on how they were wrong for you, entertaining thoughts and behaviours that still give them a starring role in the next chapter of your life when they shouldn't be an extra.

Getting over heartbreak is not easy, but if you refuse to be misled by your brain and you take steps to heal, you can significantly reduce your pain. And it won't just be you who benefit from that. You'll be more prompt with your friends, more interested in your family, and more active at university or your workplace.

Do you know someone heartbroken? Have compassion. Social support is important for recovery. Have patience, because it's going to take them longer to move on than you think it should.

And if you're hurting, know this: it's hard, it is a battle within your own mind, and you have to be persistent to win. But you do have weapons. You can fight. And you will heal.

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