Time doesn't heal all. Try these 8 science-backed steps instead.
"Getting over heart break is not a journey, it’s a fight!" — Guy Winch
A number of my guy friends have had their hearts broken recently. Listening to them, all I can think is: Damn, heartbreak hurts! I’m glad most of today’s men know that it’s acceptable to cry. Everyone needs to be allowed to have a good cry and talk it out with their mates.
Now, I’ve had my heart broken but I’m not a man so I can’t speak from that perspective, but psychologist, Dr. Guy Winch is and can. Winch is an expert on healing after heartbreak.
If you’ve had your heart broken recently, here's what Winch recommends you do:
1. Understand that love is like addiction
Recent neuroscience studies have revealed interesting facts about love and addiction. Our brains respond after a break up in the same way that a drug addict's brain responds in withdrawal periods.
Most of us have felt these symptoms:
- Obsessive thoughts about the person you love.
- Going over and over what went wrong and trying to figure it out.
- Scrolling through Facebook photos.
- Having flashbacks of happy times or your last fight.
- Desperately trying to contact them.
The first 48 hours are the most difficult after a break up because that’s when you feel the withdrawal effects in your brain the most.
Your brain craves it’s “love” fix! That’s why you start obsessing. Every time you think or see something related to your ex, your brain gets a boost of dopamine and you feel good for a second.
When we’re in love, dopamine is at its peak and feels incredible! When we break up though… dopamine withdrawal hits hard and it’s not a fun experience.
- Knowing what’s happening in your brain helps you understand why it feels so terrible at the start — and that it will get better.
- Whether you were with your love for a month or twenty years, heartbreak hurts. Be kind to yourself, accept your feelings rather than judging them, and give your brain (and your heart) a chance to heal.
You know what’s happening in your brain, here are some ways to help it heal…
2. Cut social media interaction
I‘ll talk about how to handle co-parenting in number 7, because obviously no contact would be difficult in that situation.
Social media fuels your love addicted brain but constantly checking up on them or messaging prolongs the pain.
Going off social media, even for just a month, lets your brain take time to heal. If you need social media for your job, then make sure you can’t see your ex’s profile or posts. Go no-contact.
Having a no-contact month is an incredibly powerful tool that helps your brain heal faster. It can even help get your ex back sometimes — but that’s another article.
No-contact means cutting ALL ties:
- Block or hide your ex on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — everything you use with them (you don’t need to unfriend them if you’re not ready to).
- Take social media apps off your phone.
- Let your ex know you’re going to take some time off social media if you want to.
- Write the date somewhere to remind yourself when 30 days is up.
This is hard! You’ll get a strong desire to make contact and you’ll need to fight it. Distract yourself. Turn off your phone. Remember this is a fight to get your mind back.
"40% of people experience clinically measurable depression (after heartbreak)" — Guy Winch
We’ve dealt with social media, now it’s time to have a clear out of other reminders.
3. Hide all reminders
Remove or hide anything that triggers a memory of your ex. Avoid going places that are reminders too if you can.
Thinking about your ex pumps out that dopamine we discussed earlier and that feels good, but it also locks you in love with them for longer.
“(When your in love) everything about them is special. The house they live in, the street they live on, it’s all special to you. They’re dopamine triggers.” — Helen Fisher, Heartbreak Researcher
Now that you’re starving your brain of it’s dopamine fix by removing reminders, it’ll try to come up with it’s own. Cue the “perfect” memories…
4. Remind yourself that they weren’t perfect
It’s very common to start to think about your ex in an idealized way. After a few months, you start reminiscing on the good times and thinking about how perfect your ex was — all the things you enjoyed in your relationship, the way she looked, how she made you feel.
We tend to forget bad things over time — it’s human nature — so Winch suggests making a list.
It’s not about being bitter or nasty. No-one’s perfect and this is a reality check.
- Think of all the things that you didn’t like about your ex.
- Did they do anything that was rude or hurtful?
- Did they have personality traits or habits that weren’t great?
- Write down all of the ways they weren’t a good match for you.
- Make the list as long and honest as you can.
Keep it close (like on your phone) and read it anytime you start to get nostalgic.
The next step answers that nagging question, “What went wrong?”
5. Get closure (not how you think!)
Breakups you didn’t see coming are the worst: affairs or an ex leaving when you didn’t even realize there was an issue. And then there’s ghosting, which is increasing in the dating world.
You’re left asking yourself what on earth went wrong. Trying to get an answer from your ex can be impossible. It also makes the heartbreak drag on.
Winch says you have two choices:
- You accept the reason your ex gave you (if they gave you one).
- You make up your own.
If you need to make one up, choose a reason that makes you feel good about yourself.
- It ended because she didn’t want to be in a serious relationship. (Not because you weren’t financially able to give her what she wanted.)
- It ended because she wasn’t able to deal with her personal issues. (Not because you’re not fun enough.)
- It ended because you weren’t a good match for each other. (Not because you’re a loser.)
Getting closure is important, but it’s also important not to waste too much energy on it. Put your energy instead into filling in the gaps they left…
6. Fill in the voids
When a relationship ends, you often lose more than your ex. Perhaps you socialized with her friends, went swimming together, had dinner with her parents… to move on, you need to find ways to fill the gaps that your ex left in your life.
- Exercise (it’s a great mood lifter!)
- Socialize, meet new people, go out with your friends.
- Pick up something new — a hobby, a side-hustle, a sport, writing.
- Go on holiday.
- Do something fun. Have a laugh! What did you used to enjoy when you were single?
- Get outside, preferably in nature.
However you fill the gaps, don’t be tempted to think you can fill them as “just friends”…
7. Don’t try to be friends
Trying to be friends with your ex rarely works. It might be possible in the long term but, for at least six months, any contact drags heartbreak out longer.
Attempt to have no contact for a month or more.
Why "friendship" doesn’t work well
When you’re near a recent ex, studies have shown that your body reacts. It treats the situation the same way it would treat a battle!
Your heart instantly beats faster as you prepare for a fight. In the early days of a break up, even the mention of their name can do this.
Cutting off contact as much as possible has scientifically-proven benefits.
“Through putting people who’ve been rejected or dumped into the fMRI, we’ve discovered something promising, which is that the attachment eventually reduces. Time does heal the brain.” — Helen Fisher
Without contact you get a chance to heal, but time alone isn’t enough. You need to work at it.
Break ups with kids involved
If you have kids with your ex you’ll probably still have to communicate. At the start, at least, aim for minimal contact.
- Limit phone calls. Short texts are better.
- Keep your talk child-related only. (Create strong boundaries around this for yourself and your ex if needed.)
- If you find yourself writing a long, angry or emotional text — stop! Delete it and step away from your phone.
Is your ex trying to start a fight or be negative?
- Answer questions as briefly and unemotionally as possible.
- Be boring. Be a broken record, “Let’s keep texts about the kids.”
- Don’t talk about your personal life or enter into details of past events. Stick to the basics.
- If a text doesn’t need a reply, don’t reply.
8. Distract your brain
It’s not uncommon for people to still be heartbroken a year after a break up (or more). Time does heal, but we need to do our bit too. We need tools to move on:
Redirection is one tool that Winch recommends. It’s the key to controlling obsessive thoughts or flashbacks.
If you can’t stop thinking about your ex, shift your focus to another activity that engages your brain:
- Ring a friend who knows what your going through.
- Go for a run or to the gym.
- Read a book or watch a movie.
- Write your ex a letter and then throw it out.
- Go out with your friends.
- Do math equations your head.
- Play a challenging word game.
- Make a list or plan a project.
Doing something that fully engages you and gets you in that “flow” state is the best way to stop obsessive thoughts. If you keep letting your mind wander to your ex, you’ll stay heartbroken for longer.
Some endings need to happen. Some love-matches are not healthy or workable. Relationships break because they were broken.
- Allow your brain time to heal.
- Stop liking their Instagram photos.
- Clean up your space so that it’s yours again with no reminders.
- Make that list of their faults!
- Give yourself closure, don’t expect them to.
- Go out and have fun.
- You can be friends later if you want — but give yourself time first.
- Time heals part of the problem but distraction is even better.
If you know someone who is going through a break up and might find this helpful feel free to share it. Show them some kindness too — heartbreak is tough.