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How to deal with a breakup in recovery

July 15, 2022
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

Romantic breakups have been the fodder for many books and movie plots. From Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s tragic story of Devdas to the fairly recent Bollywood movie “Queen”. In the book Devdas, Devdas drinks himself to death after losing Paro, his only true love. On the other hand, in the movie Queen, “Rani” played by Kangana Ranaut, overcomes her grief of being jilted by her fiancé a day before the wedding by going solo on her honeymoon. She meets new people, has new experiences and eventually discovers her strength and comes back a confident woman.

Everyone has a different emotional and physical response to a breakup. If a breakup is mutual, then there is less emotional pain involved. However, if you are on the receiving end of a breakup, it can be a very painful experience. Breakups can be especially tough for people in recovery as the stress of it can cause them to relapse into taking drugs again.

Getting over your breakup is easier said than done. So, let’s go beyond the obvious reasons why breakups are so painful and let’s understand the science behind it.

What happens in your brain during a breakup?

If you have experienced physical pain post-breakup, you are not imagining it. A study from 2011, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), found that failed romances activated areas of the brain associated with feelings of pain.

Edward Smith, a psychologist working at Columbia University in New York City recruited 40 volunteers who had been through an unwanted breakup in the past six months. During the experiment, they were placed in an MRI machine and were asked to look at photos of their ex-partners and think about the breakup. The MRI scans showed that when the participants were thinking about their failed relationship, areas in the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

The reason for this painful reaction lies in evolution. Not being part of a tribe meant being without food and shelter, so our bodies evolved into thinking that being alone is dangerous. When we feel rejected, our body floods us with negative emotions of pain even though there isn’t any real physical danger.

Also, during a breakup, your body can go into fight-or-flight, and you can experience loss of appetite and gastrointestinal issues, your muscles may tense up, and you can have trouble sleeping too.

Is there a connection between breakups and drug addiction?

Research shows that going through a breakup can lead to a drop in the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, the hormones associated with feelings of pleasure and happiness. This can change the brain’s chemistry, and a person may experience feelings similar to withdrawal symptoms.

Here are a few reasons why someone may seek drugs and alcohol after a breakup:

To feel better – at least for a while: Addictive substances like drugs and alcohol may help one forget their painful feelings for a few hours. While high, they might still imagine they are with the person they love and relive happy memories. However, once the high comes down, the reality hits worse than before, and they may again take drugs, creating a vicious cycle.  

To get back out there – Drugs and alcohol can be an ice breaker in some circles. As a newly single person, one may lack the confidence to meet new people. When you are high, your walls are down, and you may open up more easily to other people. However, it’s not advisable to form new relationships at this time and definitely not when one is high.

To cope with emotions – For some people, a breakup can be the most distressing thing in their life. When they have no other resources to help them deal with these painful feelings, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. 

How to deal with breakup sober while in recovery.

A breakup can leave you vulnerable, emotionally, mentally and physically. During such a time, the temptation to take drugs can be very high, which can ruin your hard-earned sobriety. Following are some ways you can deal with these negative emotions without resorting to substances.

Physically distance yourself as soon as possible – If you were living together, it’s time to move physically. If you were living in your ex-partner’s place, then move out or if your ex-partner was living in your house, then request them to leave at the earliest. It is easier to process your emotions when you aren’t around your ex.

Stick to your daily routine – While it’s normal to mope around at home for a couple of days, it’s best to get on with the normal routine of your life. Wake up, work, do your chores, shop for groceries, etc. You will start feeling normal by sticking to your daily routine very soon.

Throw yourself into things you love – While it may be easy to reach out for drugs, remember how difficult it was to give it up in the first place. So, look for other alternatives like your favourite hobbies. Go for a hike, start cooking, read a book, listen to music, watch uplifting movies etc. Make yourself and your happy time a priority.

Make a list of pros and cons of your ex – This may seem petty and juvenile but can be extremely cathartic, especially when you are still angry. Don’t hold yourself back, be truthful and write it all down. Later, when you feel down and want to get back with your ex, just read the cons list and know that trying to get back together may not be a good idea.

Spend time with friends and family – Remember your ex was not the only one you loved or who loved you. Your friends and family, who have always been there for you, are the support system that you can rely on. If they offer you their support, don’t hesitate to unburden your emotions. You can also try to have fun, like going on a road trip or camping over a weekend. Just make sure that you respect their time and space.

Stay away from friends who do drugs and alcohol – You need to take the previous advice of spending time with friends and family a little more cautiously if they have an addiction problem. They may offer you drugs and alcohol to cope with your emotion, and it is easy to give in when you have company. It is wise to stay away from them, so you don’t stray from your recovery.

Join support groups – As a person in recovery, you may already be a part of support groups. If not, then you should consider being part of one. You may find people going through a similar experience as you. Solidarity and support from them can help you deal with your pain in a better way. 

Moreover, you can get a sponsor to whom you can turn when you feel like doing drugs in desperation.

Talk to a counselor – If you aren’t comfortable talking about your breakup in front of a group, you may consider talking to a counsellor. You may open up about your emotions better when you know your conversation is private. There are also online services where you can seek help anonymously. At the end of the day, discussing your feelings is important.

Avoid a rebound relationship – When you are emotionally vulnerable, it’s easy to fall for someone who may show you some kindness. However, you need to heal your broken heart first before offering it again to someone. You need to deal with your emotions first, and only when you know, you are over your ex should you seek a new companion.

In closing, breakups can be very painful, and it would be easier to fall into old patterns of doing drugs and alcohol to overcome this painful phase. However, with the help of friends, family and counselling, you can get over it without breaking up with your sobriety.


Dodgson. L. (2018, January) Breaking up with someone can feel like physical pain – here’s how the end of a relationship affects us psychologically.

Kross. E., Berman. M., Mischel. W., Smith. E., Wager. (2011, March) Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain.

Mitrokostas. S. (2019, February) Breakups can impact you in more ways than you think. Here’s the science behind why they hurt so much.

Earp. B., Wudarczyk. O., Foddy. B., Savulescu. J. (2017, March) Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?

Schultz. A. (2022, April) Why Do We Drink After a Breakup?