- There are a lot of reasons breakups can be painful to deal with or tough to handle.
Sometimes the end of a relationship can be extra difficult because humans typically crave rational explanations and logical solutions that breakups don’t usually offer.
- In some cases, breaking up feels extra painful because ending a relationship sometimes feels like losing an investment.
Breakups can be difficult to deal with, especially because they can stir up feelings of rejection, alter your daily routine, and make you feel generally upset. If you’ve ever struggled to get over a split, you know that the post-breakup ache is unlike any other. But have you ever wondered exactly why the end of a relationship feels so painful?
INSIDER consulted with experts to figure out the scientific and psychological reasons why breakups hurt so badly.
Your body can go into ‘fight-or-flight‘mode after a breakup
When you go through a breakup, especially one that’s unexpected, your body may register it as an emergency and go into “fight-or-flight” mode. Being in this state triggers the release of hormones that can prepare your body to stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety, according to Very Well Mind. It can also trigger a rapid heartbeat or trembling.
“Our muscles tense, we lose our appetite, we may experience [gastrointestinal] disruption, and we’re likely to have trouble falling asleep. Being in this physically hyper-vigilant state over a period of time can lead to headaches, stomachaches, and muscle soreness,” licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Kristin Bianchi told INSIDER.
If your body feels like it’s being impacted by a breakup, it’s especially important to make sure you get enough sleep and eat well. Feeling out of sorts during a post-breakup period is normal but you should contact a health provider if your emotional distress is making it difficult for you to eat, sleep, or complete daily functions.
The emotional pain of breaking up can actually feel like physical pain
It’s not your imagination – there’s a reason nursing a broken heart can sometimes feel like healing from a physical blow. Some studies have found that our bodies sometimes respond to a breakup in the same way it reacts to physical pain.
“Research has shown that regions of the brain that get activated in response to physical pain also get activated in response to a breakup. Whether we’ve broken a bone or gotten dumped, many of the same underlying neurological structures are involved. This translates to the conscious experience of being in pain,” Dr. Bianchi told INSIDER.
Going through a breakup can change your brain chemistry
Research has shown that when someone goes through a breakup, they experience a drop in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that are associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness.
“In the immediate aftermath of a breakup, we’re going to experience these abrupt chemical changes almost as we would a type of withdrawal – complete with ‘cravings’ to be reunited with our exes,” said Dr. Bianchi.
Post-breakup, your brain can enter a state of acute wanting that can make it difficult to focus on anything else. In fact, this relative deficit in the neurotransmitters associated with pleasurable feelings can even give rise to symptoms that resemble clinical depression.
If you’re going through a tough breakup, it’s extremely important that you monitor your mental health and seek professional help if you feel like you need it or it’s become difficult for you to function in day-to-day life.
The pain of rejection could also be rooted in basic survival instincts
For some species of animals, their odds of survival improve when they work together in groups. And on some levels, humans are the same – we’re social creatures and our brains have evolved to help us want to preserve social bonds. And so losing any of these bonds, including romantic ones, can cause us to feel strong negative feelings.
“One reason being broken up with is so painful lies in evolution. Being rejected from a tribe or social group used to quite literally mean being cut off from shelter and food, putting our survival in jeopardy,” licensed clinical social worker Meg Josephson told INSIDER.
In order to avoid the very-real danger of social abandonment, Josephson explained that our brains have developed to trigger pain the moment we sense we are in danger of being rejected. Even though, in most cases, losing a romantic partner no longer means we might be in danger of starving or freezing to death, our brains still respond to the loss of a “mate” by flooding us with negative emotions and feelings of pain.
People tend to crave rational explanations and logical solutions that breakups don’t always offer
When something doesn’t go as planned, people usually want to figure out why – especially because knowing the cause of something can help us gather information to avoid future mistakes. But the rationale behind a breakup is seldom black and white, so it can be hard for our brains to process it.
“People find comfort in logic and being able to pinpoint the cause and effect of what went wrong. Unfortunately, because of the complex emotional aspects of romantic relationships, it’s often hard to define exactly when and how something went awry. Without concrete information, which is typically not articulated, people tend to blame themselves and feel that it is a reflection of their overall desirability,” said Josephson.
The pain associated with a breakup is often exacerbated by trying to backtrack and figure out what went wrong. It’s usually impossible to pinpoint exactly why a relationship fell apart and repeatedly combing over the details of the breakup in your mind can stall the healing process.
Breaking up can feel like losing an investment
Relationships can be incredibly fulfilling, but they can demand a lot from you. When you’ve spent months or years building a life with another person, breaking up with them can make you feel like you’ve lost all of the emotional energy and material resources you spent on maintaining that partnership.
“Relationships involve big investments of feelings, attention, time and money. Losing a partner can make you feel as though everything you put into the relationship was wasted,” board-certified psychologist Dr. Shane G. Owens told INSIDER.
The end of a serious relationship can sometimes mean taking the time to rebuild emotionally and financially. It can be useful to keep in mind that although you may no longer have a relationship with your former partner, the memories and experiences you have gained from that previous relationship can oftentimes be invaluable.
In some cases, a breakup can make your daily life more demanding
Though it may not sound romantic, being in a relationship can often make it easier to handle the mundane details of daily life. When you break up, the loss of your partner might leave you with extra responsibilities that you’re not accustomed to managing and they can add additional stress into your life.
“When a breakup happens, basic things like doing laundry, picking up dry cleaning, or going grocery shopping – things your partner used to do – can be missed. In long-term relationships, people often experience what looks like memory loss because their partner was responsible for remembering things like phone numbers, addresses, and important dates,” Dr. Owens told INSIDER.
Recovering from a breakup may mean altering your schedule to reclaim certain chores and tasks, which can be tough when you’re already dealing with heartache.
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