Here's What Happens To Your Brain Post-Breakup, And Why A Bootcamp Can Help

Breakups can take a physical toll on the body and mind. Why not treat them with a physiological solution?

While post-breakup emotions may seem purely psychological, the resulting trauma can actually illicit a physical response depending on the nature of your breakup. Someone going through a breakup doesn't just feel sad, their brain can actually experience a sudden decrease of dopamine, the "feel good" neurochemical. 

This happens because when you're in a relationship, your brain gets a hit of dopamine every time your partner sends a sweet text, holds your hand, kisses you, all those fun couple-y things. That disappears, however, once the relationship does. It would be easy if your desire for dopamine disappeared as well, but it doesn't, which is why breaking up is hard to do. 

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To counteract this breakup-induced dopamine dependence, Amy Chan founded a women-only Renew Breakup Bootcamp weekend retreat where guests can learn to heal both psychologically and physically from their breakups. The inspiration for such a bootcamp came from Chan's own breakup experience. 

"I tried everything to heal. From therapy, acupuncture, reiki, energy healing, yoga retreats — you name it, I tried it," she tells A Plus. "As I pieced myself back together, I realized the critical elements that were impactful in my healing process." (Chan purposefully chose not to create a co-ed bootcamp because she wanted "everyone there to feel fully safe and comfortable to talk, release, do the ugly cry if need be" and  didn't want "the distraction of attraction or only showing a certain side because of the opposite sex might be judging.")

Breakup bootcamp
Women coming together at Renew Breakup Bootcamp Photo courtesy of Amy Chan and Renew Breakup Bootcamp

After combining the trial and error of her own experience with research and collaborating with psychologists, neuroscientists, and other healing facilitators, Chan created a "curriculum" for the breakup bootcamp. One of the core tenets being a strict "no phones" policy requiring all bootcampers to turn off their phones for the whole weekend. Many breakup experts encourage those dealing with heartache to "unplug," but Renew Breakup Bootcamp ensures you follow through. 

"We want everyone to be 100 percent present. Having your phone on you distracts you from the program, and also distracts other participants," she says. Not only that, but according to Chan, people are too-often tempted to check their ex's social media because doing so gives their brain a hit of dopamine. "To create new patterns to get dopamine in a healthier way, we remove the temptation because we cannot rely on discipline," she explains. 

Unfortunately, the less dopamine we have in our lives, the more we crave it, leading us to sometimes seek it out in self-destructive ways, like texting an ex. "When we're chasing any high — whether that's having a lover, having sex ... whatever it might be — [in] that game we're always set up to lose," Breakup Expert Kate Galt tells A Plus. "And that's the hardest part about being human — because it's just so natural to seek something that makes you feel good, especially in our culture." 

To help its attendees take themselves out of this losing game, Renew Breakup Bootcamp even offers a bucket to keep their phones completely out of sight and out of mind for the weekend. Chan believes this additional tactic helps remove "the wonder and angst of if the ex is contacting or not" because if a participant is constantly waiting for and/or worrying about getting messages from the ex, "they are relinquishing their power." 

While Chan's preventive measures might sound extreme, Galt has seen many clients fall prey to the temporary high of receiving an ex's text when left to their own (mobile) devices. "This happens all the time — it's crazy. They're, like, six months into the breakup and they're still texting," she explains. "That's the dopamine high that they're waiting for… some kind of 'Oh, my ex just texted me, and I'm still lovable.'" Galt was quick to acknowledge that, despite her expertise, "we've all been there." 

Dopamine in the brain of someone going through a breakup
The chemical makeup of dopamine Alice Vacca / Shutterstock

Because this tendency has become so common, Chan designed her breakup bootcamps with an emphasis on understanding the inner workings of the post-breakup brain. "The same flood of chemicals that causes you to be blissfully in lust during the beginning stages of love are the exact same chemicals that cause you to painfully suffer when the relationship ends," she notes. "...The part of the brain affected (ventral segmental area of the brain) is associated with motivation, goal-oriented behavior, and the rewards system responsible for the release of dopamine." 

When your brain craves dopamine, it encourages you to act in ways that will result in that neurological reward. Over time, the brain has come to expect that reward in certain forms like validation from a partner, loving touch, return of affection, etc. "But after a breakup, the reward is either delayed or doesn't come at all," Chan says. "Even though, on a cognitive level, you know the relationship is over, the neurons in your brain that are expecting reward don't shut down, keeping you are unconsciously in love and addicted to your ex." 

To retrain your brain so it no longer associates dopamine with your ex, both Galt and Chan recommend a daily meditation practice. Their approaches differ slightly, however. Galt encourages people to "just let the grief come" and then use a guided visualization meditation to move past it. "A great way for beginners, if they can't sit still, is more of a visualization than a meditation," she says. "... We have to know that the love comes from us." 

Comparatively, Chan suggests a combination of meditation and gratitude journaling. "Feeling gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits and can boost serotonin," she explains. "Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. It's not finding gratitude that matters most; it's remembering to look in the first place." 

Breakups are often seen as a psychological problem with "time" being the routinely cited solution, but recent research has shown that isn't entirely true. A 2010 study found that showing recently broken-hearted people a photo of their ex  activated the same brain regions (the ventral tegmental area) as when someone goes through cocaine withdrawal. Because breakups take a physical toll on the body and mind, they require a physiological solution. Meditation — whether at a breakup bootcamp or at home — can be an important part of that solution, due to its ability to reduce stress and blood pressure

Beyond meditation itself, the overall practice of mindfulness allows people to better control their emotional responses. In fact, a 2011 review of empirical studies on the psychological effects of mindfulness found that it brings about various positive psychological effects, including reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity and improved behavioral regulation. Anecdotally, Chan has seen positive results when advising her breakup bootcampers to remind themselves that they're going through a natural cycle of separation, and eventually, the chemical reactions will subside. She encourages them to "create distance from being your feelings." So instead of saying, "I am depressed," Chan wants people to reframe the sentiment to "I am experiencing feelings of sadness." 

Chan's breakup bootcamp doesn't offer up any quick fixes, only the tools to start working on long-term solutions. In addition to the physical activities attendees participate in during the weekend, one of those tools is an emotional support system of like-minded women who can relate to each other's experiences. Not only do the women create "deep, meaningful bonds" during the retreat, according to Chan, but those connections continue after the weekend ends, usually through a WhatsApp group. 

The women can use the messaging platform to share both wins and moments when they need support, encouragement, and/or accountability. "Connection — that's what these bootcamps are about: being in a room with the same kind of people," Galt says. "...We have to know that we have a circle of friends that love us ... I think a bootcamp is a great way to be with other people… connection, community —and just being — those are the answers to letting go of the chase of dopamine." 

Instead of trying to suppress the physical pain of a breakup with a stream of dopamine hits, Chan hopes people can see this time in their life as "an opportunity for you to grow." After all, she concludes, "Pain is a valuable catalyst for change." 

Cover image via Bondar Pavel on Shutterstock

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