As I was graduating from college, I went through a lot of changes. One of them was breaking up with my boyfriend of three years.
It was certainly for the best, but at the time I felt completely broken. Like, can’t eat, can’t get up off the floor, can’t muster more than a mumbled response to anything, heartbroken.
In a Columbia University study, test participants who had recently been dumped or felt rejected looked at pictures of different people, including ex lovers. Their brain scans showed that the part of the brain that feels pain would become active when participants were exposed to photos of their exes.
So, “heartbreak” isn’t just a metaphor. It’s actual pain. Which makes sense: at one point, I even said to a friend that I felt like I had been hit by a dump truck.
In an effort to heal myself, I made a lot of wrong moves. Awkward hookups, ghosting on flings, going on Tinder dates with random guys whom I could only compare to my ex and find them lacking in some way.
As it turns out, there’s actually a better way to get back in the game after heartbreak. Here are five steps the experts recommend you take in order to jump back in:
“Being in love releases Dopamine and Oxycontin, which light up the same reward center of the brain as drugs do,” explains Dr. Wyatt Fischer, a licensed psychologist and professor. “Therefore, going through a break-up is very similar to trying to kick a drug habit.”
Luckily, your feelings are temporary. Allow yourself to feel, and take this time to give your body what it needs: proper nutrition, exercise, social stimulation, and some good old-fashioned pampering.
Time heals all wounds, as the saying goes. But when you’re grieving, it can feel difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“A person needs to fully grieve what they have lost before dating again,” says communications coach and marriage expert Lesli Doares. “Allowing yourself to go through the stages of grief is important before dating again because you are vulnerable during every stage except the final one: acceptance. Unresolved emotions will always interfere in some way or another.”
This is a step I definitely skipped as I was struggling to recover from heartbreak and start dating again.
According to Doares, it’s important to know that you’re ready to connect with someone new before you start putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable again.
“When starting to date again, be clear about why,” says Doares. “If it is to assuage past hurt or fear of being alone, STOP. A new relationship cannot fill an existing hole. Date because you are ready to let a new person in to your life. Date because you are ready to share who you are. Date because you’re ready to connect with another person, regardless of the outcome.”
According to Rosalind Sedacca, CLC, it’s important to think about how you want this new phase in your life to look.
“Visualize your life now with the wisdom you’ve accrued,” says Sedacca about dating post-breakup.
“Will you make different partner choices? Will you ask different questions? Will you be more alert regarding red flag warning signs? How will life look if you have a partner who loves you back, is more compassionate, less confrontational, more receptive to your qualities? Focus your attention on how that would feel. Visualize a happier relationship ahead filled with mutual love.”
There are lots of ways to get back in the game. With dozens of dating apps available, you could get in an online dating groove and start meeting up with people in local coffee shops or at your favorite bar. (Just be sure to practice safety—especially if you live in a dangerous area.)
Most importantly, take it slow (whatever that means for you). Studies show that going more slowly in the beginning of a relationship leads to a higher likelihood of long-term relationship success and happiness.
So, be sure to give yourself time to get to know people and to make choices that are best for you and your mental health.
Luckily, everything turned out okay for me in the end. But, if I had followed these five steps, I might have saved myself some heartache.
It’s two years later and I’m in love with someone new. It took a while, but I healed. And so will you.
Elaine is a writer with articles in multiple publications, including VentureBeat and MindBodyGreen. She writes about everything from from tech to business practices to lifestyle. Elaine’s skills include shower singing, burning her tongue on Pop-Tarts and quoting “The Emperor’s New Groove.” She is based out of Salt Lake City where she lives with her two cats, Weasley and Omen.