You have just broken up with your boyfriend/girlfriend and you can’t eat, sleep, feel panicky, disoriented, can’t focus at work and feel like you’re going to die. Maybe you feel nauseous, have headaches, feel depressed, can’t function at home or at work, have cravings for the person, have thoughts of suicide, feel shaky, forgetful, or a host of other symptoms that make you feel horrible.
Welcome to relationship withdrawal. Yes, the symptoms you are feeling are the same symptoms a drug or alcohol or any other addicted person feels when their “substance” is removed from their lives.
How can this be so? And why is it so intense?
I have written several articles on the effects dopamine has on the brain. Dopamine is the “feel good” transmitter that our brain produces in response to something that triggers it. The trigger can be positive: exercise, falling in love, being surprised with some wonderful gift from a loved one; and it can also be triggered by something negative: spousal abuse, an unexpected response or event, drug/alcohol abuse.
The bottom line is this: Our brains like dopamine and they don’t care what we have to do to supply it to them, as long as they get their “fix.”
When we find ourselves out of a relationship with someone, it does not really matter to the brain whether it was a healthy or destructive situation. As long as the brain was getting its dopamine needs met, it felt okay. But once that supply is gone from our lives, the brain gets cranky and starts to flood us with all sorts of physical and psychological symptoms. Sometimes these symptoms are so bad, that we will voluntarily return to whatever the supply was that we left, including horrible and painful relationships, just to get that dopamine level met and thereby quiet and quell the dreadful withdrawal. This is one of the reasons some people can’t leave a bad relationship. It is also the reason we feel like we are dying when we get dumped from what we thought was a good relationship. It is like being on a treadmill running 5 miles an hour for a long period of time and then suddenly the treadmill is turned off. We are still in motion, even though the treadmill is no longer running us. Instead of the euphoric dopamine production, we crash and burn in a dysphoric state.
The brain knows there are many ways for us to get our dopamine “kicks.” But as creatures of habit, we will seek the same thing over and over until it destroys us; or we may instead switch addictions and leave the drama filled relationship and do other things to get our dopamine needs met. With each bout of addiction comes the need to up the ante because the brain will need more and more as it gets accustomed to the ever increasing levels of dopamine. The pattern becomes a disease of the brain which is constantly talking to us and telling us to feed it more and more. This explains why people literally feel as if they are going into withdrawal when they get out of a relationship. The brain is begging for a fix.
Anyone who has ever been through drug or alcohol rehab knows that it takes time to go through the withdrawal. Time has an elegant and eloquent way of calming us down if we allow it to. If you or someone you know is going through relationship withdrawal, share this information with them. Be as supportive as you can and if you are going through it yourself, don’t isolate. Isolation will magnify the symptoms and prolong the recovery. Get active and stay busy in something positive. Start to walk, jog, volunteer to work with animals, work out at the gym or take a class so that the dopamine levels in your brain can be positively activated. And do this every day whether you want to or not. If you wait for your feelings to catch up with you, you will never get there! Get a notebook and journal about your feelings each day, then put the notebook away and get proactive doing something positive for yourself. Allow yourself only 5 minutes twice a day to cry over it and then get on with your life in between the crying spells. Seriously, schedule and time out your crying spells. Then get on with it. Learn from the relationship and make a solid plan for what you will do, won’t do, will allow, won’t allow the next time you are in a relationship. Know that in time, you will look back on your stint in withdrawal and it will be over…for good.