When you lose the one you love most, your mind and heart can feel as though it is going through the darkest night of the soul.
Most things that people take for granted — eating, sleeping, going to work — can become chores that you can scarcely bring yourself to do.
The truth is that, even though a gut-wrenching breakup is extremely common, it somehow has the ability to make you feel like you’re the only creature ever to have known such acute pain.
Objectively real or not, it feels true and in such a vulnerable state, that’s all you can hang on to.
Whether they cheated on you or forces greater than either of you pulled you apart for now, there is an antidote to this level of heartache — and it starts when you’ve hit rock bottom. A bottom so deep that you’re open to all forms of change that are about to enter your life.
And nothing brings about change at a breakneck speed like travel.
The Emotional Brain
The brain-body connection is especially piqued during and after a breakup. Studies by cognitive neuroscientists at Columbia University show that your brain senses physical pain when looking at things that remind you of your ex or experiencing memories of shared moments.
It’s also well known that the brain in love mimics a brain on drugs since the key neurotransmitter in both sequences is dopamine, a release of a hormone that makes the brain feel good. As a result, we’re “addicted to the feeling”.
Here’s where the flawed thinking comes in: if it’s the brain that is mainly registering these emotions we classify as “good” and “bad”, you think, then why can’t I think my way through this pain?
Because the brain is essentially, amongst other things, a recording device and it replays those painful moments over and over again. It’s designed to shield you from the same pain again and it’s an incredibly useful learning tool.
But if you confine yourself only to its functions, you’ll miss out on the part that imagination plays. If brains deal with the past, imagination is about the future. And imagination comes from the mind, from what’s possible and from casting yourself into the new.
Prepare To Be Uncomfortable for a While to Come: Your Brain on Travel
Now take that same brain and plunge it into a situation where it has to fight for survival. There are new people, new experiences, a new culture and no familiar languages. It’s not just about distracting the mind from that old break-up record that’s playing.
It’s about breaking up everything it knows as familiar and comfortable.
The brain on travel is a powerful and visceral for it to literally grow. University of Pittsburg professor Paul Nussbaum, puts it this way: “When you expose your brain to an environment that’s novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts”.
There are new connections being formed as your brain tries to re-integrate all that it has known, all that it is learning now and all the different challenges travel presents.
How to navigate a taxi at 3 am in the morning in Johannesburg, how to organize visas and how to approach local artisans to spend the day with them when you don’t speak their language — this is what it’s learning to do.
Travel calls for new ways for the brain, mind, body and heart to work in unison and form a frame of emotional stability. It’s not only responding to new challenges but also becoming increasingly confident in the unknown.
The diverse and interconnected structures of new understanding and knowledge that your brain has to create is largely responsible for making you more creative.
In fact, Dr. Moran Cerf, renowned neuroscientist and professor at the Kellogg School of Management says that, when confronted with new experiences, the brain reaches in to old memories, relives them, and replaces them. Each time it does this, there is an editing process that goes on. Eventually, the memory “pulled out” enough times that it no longer resembles what it meant before.
This means very big things: there is hope, there is the “other side” and getting to it means traveling there — literally and figuratively.
Leaving on a jet plane when all you want to do is hunker down and disappear into blankets does more than simply break you out of a routine. Initially, when you’re traveling across Rome or sitting on a train to Brussels, seeing canoodling couples will pierce your heart so intensely, you might have to physically excuse yourself.
In essence, travelling after a breakup can strip you of your defences and make you feel completely isolated from the rest of the world — even when you’re standing in the middle of a crowd.
But that is exactly what needs to happen. Because it is at this point in our story that change and transformation comes on. The truth is that both the brain and the heart are evolving. They’re just not the same after a break up. And nothing ties those lessons together better than a shifting environment.
Making it to the Other Side: 5 Ways Travel Can Help
Travel makes you well-informed, compassionate and more likely to make complimentary mental connections. But it also emotionally strengthens you in a myriad of ways:
– Travel can help you breathe and stay present in the moment since you need all your attention and wits about you to make it through a regular day
– You can create physical and emotional distance between you and your relationship — meaning that you’re more likely to assess it objectively and look back with perspective.
– Travel forces you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable: this is what you’re going to be feeling 99% of the time — out of place. The human mind is incredibly flexible and is designed to adapt. And so will you.
– In the absence of your relationship, you’ll be forced to look around and fill your attention up with other things. And these will probably be things that make you feel good. Luckily, travel is full of varying adventures so you’re likely to pick up a new hobby or five.
Now What? Go Where There Be Dragons
You see single people all the time boasting, “I never want to be in a relationship again! Single Lyfe 4 life!”
These people are, mostly, just incredibly lonely and can’t admit it — not even to themselves.
But when you allow the solitude and the wonder of travel to open your eyes and soften your heart, you can truly enjoy being “unattached” while also consciously keeping your heart open for the next big relationship.
In the meantime,
you’re learning to enjoy your company. Since the world is your oyster right now, consider undertaking these adventures:
- A remote travel/digital nomad group like Remote Year or Hacker Paradise
- Group travels like Contiki
- Taking a themed trip: jazz festivals of America or surfing competitions in Southeast Asia, etc.
- Follow a Band on Tour: pick your favorite band and follow their itinerary. You don’t need to buy tickets, just hang out in town
- Volunteer Abroad for a Short Mission or Project: bonus points if it ties in to your professional expertise (besides travel, meaningful work is something that truly soothes the soul)
– Take a Road Trip: pack a rental or invest in a camper and cruise on the open road
- Undertake a Trip Focused on the Practice of One Activity: hit the waves in Tofino or the mountains for some rock climbing. Practice it over a season and watch how you change.