Monday, February 13, 2017

How to Rewire your Brain after a Break-Up (so you can surviveValentine's Day)

I remember one February I went through a particularly hellish break-up, which according to research, is really frighteningly common. Sure break-ups are normal, most people have a few of them in their lifetime, but the scary part is the staggeringly high number of breakups that happen in February. In fact, more couples break up in February than in any other month with the Tuesday before Valentine’s Day being the most popular day on the calendar for couples to call it quits. My boyfriend at the time broke up with me two days before Valentine’s Day in Las Vegas, and I will never forget sitting slumped on the carpet in the hallway of the 11th floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino. 

Break-ups are rough but they are the absolute worst in February. When you go through a break up, all those “I feel good” chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that are so prevalent when you were dating now start racing out of your system looking for the nearest exit. Your brain is literally depletes itself of good feelings, while cortisol, the stress hormone, rushes to move into the newly vacated real estate in your brain. 

This leaves you:

  • exhausted, because your adrenal glands are activated 
  • with a weaker immune system because dopamine and oxytocin actually help regulate that sort of thing 
  • quite possibly with head and body aches as inflammation in your body soars 
  • with an overall feeling of gloom and doom, because breakups suck and now you are sad.

But it’s not all bad news (I mean, it is mostly bad news but we have to find a silver lining somewhere right???) because the brain is made to heal itself and recover. Your brain literally knows how to create new pathways. While the month of February might be screaming at you to remember you ex every time you see another red heart or another special for a couples massage, keep in mind your brain is ultimately on your side. 

Here are five things you can do to help re-wire your brain while going through a break-up this month:

Pick Out A Mantra 

Whether it’s “this feeling will pass” or “I can do this,” mantras are powerful ways to stay present and mindful in the midst of chaos. And right now, your brain is in chaos. Repeat your mantra daily when you start to spin or feel anxious or fantasize about ways to seek revenge on your ex. As you repeat your mantra your brain will begin creating a new neural pathway that will be your lifeline when the gloom and doom hits. 

Try Something New
This one is a non-negotiable. Your brain is great with memories, especially emotionally charged memories. So the goal here is to create a new memory. Join a class and learn about art, music, or writing. Go on a trip to somewhere you’ve never been. Try a food you’ve never tasted before. Right now your brain needs new and novel experiences. Don’t be heading out to you and your ex’s favorite date spot or go-to coffee shop. At least for the first month, try something new and avoid the other stuff. There will be enough that will remind you of them (like the gaping hole in your heart). Don’t make it harder on yourself. 

Go Outside
According to this research getting out of the house and into nature can decrease blood flow to the subgenual pre-frontal cortex or the part of the brain that likes to obsess about stuff. If you want the part of your brain that loves ruminating to quiet down a bit consider getting out into nature. Take a hike, take a walk along the beach, or head to a local flower garden. Fresh air, new scents and a little movement in nature does wonders for the brain. 

Hang Out With Some Fur-Babies (read pets, not especially hairy infants…)
There are plenty of ways to volunteer when it comes to animals. The Humane Society offers many ways such as dog walking, pet bathing, administering medicine or cleaning out kennels to get involved. If you have a friend who has a pet, offer to take them for a walk. Pet owners (as I am one) love this. Sometimes you just need to snuggle with a fuzzy little dog or cat where you feel unconditional acceptance and love. When the brain feels safe and loved, the brain relaxes and this alone helps us to heal. 

I know many of these could fall under the “self-care” category but I want to address basic self-care such as eating, hydrating and sleeping. It’s easy to turn to coping skills that help us numb (i.e. drugs, alcohol, excessive shopping, under-eating or over-eating) but this is not the time to be cavalier about self-care, your immune system is already vulnerable. Lack of apatite might be normal after a loss, but your brain still desperately needs you to eat. The brain is made of fat and when don’t eat the foods we need, part of our brain begins to shut down. The same goes for sleep. When we don’t sleep there are all kinds of side effects such as increased blood pressure, impaired brain activity and a lowered immune system. If these things are not in place your brain will have trouble healing. Do what you need to make sure you have this part covered whether that’s reaching out to a trusted friend, a support group or a therapist.