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Coping With Distress and Agony After a Break-Up

Tips on dealing with the brain chemistry of being rejected.

Key points

  • Feeling anxious, insecure, and upset after a break-up often indicates a drop in the brain’s dopamine and serotonin levels.
  • Lowered dopamine and seratonin levels undermine feelings of optimism and confidence, falsely driving one to seek out reward from their ex-lover.
  • Natural serotonin and dopamine boosters include physical activity, sunshine, smiling, and good nutrition.

Maybe there is something in the air—a lot of people around me have been struggling with relationship anxiety lately.

One friend, in particular, is trying to recover from a fleeting lover who called it quits after just a few months. She’s caught up in the stormy brain chemistry of rejection and loss—likely including significant drops in her dopamine and serotonin levels—and the resulting depression, anxiety, feelings of addiction and deprivation—plus an overwhelming drive to recover what was lost in order to combat the real emotional pain of rejection.

As she struggles to resist the temptation to stalk, plead, and generally make a needy fool of herself, we created a list of reminders to help her become more mindful of her emotions, reframe her urges, and set a new course. Her ultimate goal is to come through this ordeal in one piece and perhaps even emerge better and brighter. She agreed to share her list, in the hope of supporting others in the throes of rejection.

(Naturally, change the pronouns to fit your situation and rest on the affirmations that resonate for you.)


When I’m feeling anxious, insecure, and upset, I’m experiencing a drop in my brain’s dopamine and serotonin levels. These drops undermine my feelings of optimism and confidence and drive me to seek out the false reward of reassurance and closeness with my ex-lover.

I shall boost my confidence and restore calm by remembering the following:

  1. My distress is a result of brain chemistry and I’m not crazy. Just temporarily off-balance.
  2. My anxieties and insecurities don’t necessarily reflect what’s really going on or what he’s thinking or feeling.
  3. Just because he broke up with me doesn’t mean that what we had wasn’t real. It’s simply not real anymore.
  4. I shall respectfully honor his request for space.
  5. Seeking contact (stalking, pleading) does not bring relief. It only brings shame.
  6. Instead of thinking, I have to get him to tell me the truth, change his mind, stop cheating, etc., I shall stop caring about what he does or how he feels.
  7. It is a mistake to heed the voice inside my head that urges me to seek him out. That voice comes from pain, insecurity, and fear and is not the best me.
  8. When that voice is triggered, I shall turn toward myself or a good friend for reassurance, not him.
  9. When I am triggered, I shall mindfully observe my physiology and let it wane without trying to fix it. Rather than thinking, I have to see him and recapture what was, I shall think, Oh, look at that. I’m having an anxious moment. This, too, shall pass. (Also, try unfurrowing your brow. A calm face leads to a calm mind.)
  10. When triggered, I shall give myself a 90-second timeout for my physiology to calm down—and I shall not renew my distress by focusing on what’s upsetting to me.
  11. I shall not measure my worth by his attitude toward me. His attitude is a reflection on him, not me.
  12. He’s just not that into me, and I shall spend my time with people who appreciate me. Life is too short to do otherwise.
  13. Distance from him is what heals me. Whenever I try to get close again, it’s like picking off a scab and making it bleed. I’m only forcing myself to go through the agony of withdrawal all over again. When a scab has formed, I shall let it heal over completely.
  14. I shall not justify seeking closeness as an attempt to keep my lover as a friend. I cannot afford a friendship until I’m completely over him and no longer even remotely triggered. And it’s okay if we don’t remain friends. Moving on is a sign of personal growth.
  15. It’s okay for me to feel sad that this relationship has ended. As I grieve, I am moving toward healing.
  16. I am a growing, changing person and can learn from this experience.
  17. I shall take the high road and behave in ways that have dignity and restore my self-respect.
  18. I shall do what nurtures my health and wholeness. (Natural serotonin and dopamine boosters include physical activity, sunshine on my skin, smiling, and good nutrition including plenty of protein, vegetables, B vitamins, and bananas.)
  19. When I take care of myself, I feel confident, optimistic, attractive, and authentic.
  20. The more I behave like a sane person, the more I’ll feel like a sane person.
  21. To resist focusing on a dead relationship, I shall focus on living my best life.
  22. I shall seek out what energizes me, not what drains me.
  23. I shall remember that my success is the best revenge!

Now after six weeks, she's finding that these affirmations have become habits in her thinking, and she can more easily counter destructive thoughts as they arise. Occasionally she still trips up or gets triggered, but the falls are less frequent and not as far. Over time, she's also noticing that her insecurities are turning into, "How dare he treat me that way!"

Do you have strategies that have helped you reframe and recover?

(For more on the 90-second timeout, watch Jill Bolte Taylor's fascinating TED talk, or refer to her book where she explains her "stroke of insight" on balancing the brain's left and right hemispheres.)

More from Deborah L. Davis Ph.D.
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