Holiday heartbreak can be painful. Have you noticed that as the holidays roll around, breakups are on the rise? Perhaps you are reading this blog post because you are going through it. There is something about fall and relationships ending. I see this pattern every year in my practice even though I know that couples struggle year round.
Music and poetry often describe heartache as physical pain, and research shows that physical and emotional pain both share the same neural pathways. It’s not a metaphor, and you are not being overly dramatic. Our brains were created to love and be loved. When we experience the ultimate rejection from our lover, our stress hormones go rampant, leading to tense muscles, digestive issues, and susceptibility to colds and viruses.
Perhaps people don’t want to spend money on gifts or travel with a partner who feels more like the enemy. Maybe it has to do with the time change, shorter days, colder weather, and more days at home with less distractions forcing us to face our relationship head on. Maybe it’s that the year is ending, and as we consider what we want to take into the new year, we realize our partner is not one of them. Regardless of what motivates people to take the plunge and end their relationships during the holiday season, know that you are not alone.
Research on Breakups
Many love songs talk about love being an addiction. Again, not totally wrong. Brain scans show the same areas of the brain associated with drug addiction, “the pleasure center of the brain,” are involved with falling in love and experiencing heartbreak. Heartbreak looks a lot like what a person addicted to cocaine would experience if they were going through withdrawal. Another study, using functional magnetic imaging, revealed that simply seeing a photograph of our ex-lover who rejected us can activate areas of the brain linked to cravings and emotional regulation. A person enduring heartbreak will be tempted to engage in reconnecting behaviors like viewing their ex’s social media or calling them. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and expert on heartbreak, stated ‘Romantic love can be a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well…and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.’
Navigating Heartbreak during the holidays
Here are some suggestions to help you move closer to healing during the holiday season.
- Eliminate visual reminders of your ex-partner. This means taking down photos, putting away gifts they gave you, not following them on social media, and not revisiting places where you went on dates. I always encourage my clients to take their time with this and do what feels right for them.
- Find something else, not someone else, that will get you excited and your dopamine surging. Maybe that’s a fitness class, learning to play the guitar, starting a business, or donating your time to a cause that’s important to you. The idea here is to be meaningfully busy, doing something that you feel passionate about and that helps your self-esteem
- Rearrange your schedule and shake up your routine. Oftentimes your daily schedule is closely tied to your partner, so if you stick to the same routine, the absence will be amplified.
- If you’ve idealized your partner, it’s time to bring them down from the pedestal. Remember that no one is perfect. This doesn’t mean bashing them or being hurtful.
- Stop overthinking and questioning the breakup. Closure, or our perceived need for it, often keeps us stuck. If your ex-partner gave you a reason for the breakup, believe them. If they did not, you can create that narrative with some reflection and objectivity.
- Practice self-compassion; there’s science to back up why you feel so much despair. Judging yourself for missing them and wanting to reach out will not make things easier.
- Prepare a simple, diplomatic response when family and friends ask about the breakup. Know that your story is yours and only yours to share. No one has a right to know anything you feel uncomfortable sharing. Keep your statement short and simple, and quickly switch the topic if needed.
- Give yourself permission to skip events, take a break, or leave early.
During this season, the priority is your emotional health and ensuring that your behaviors are moving you closer to wholeness. Overcoming heartbreak takes time and effort. It can also lead you to some of the best experiences of your life, even if that’s difficult to imagine now.