Time Will Heal but Only if You Let It

How many times have you heard the phrase “just give it time” or “time heals all wounds” in light of a breakup? I do believe that time is a big factor in healing from loss but some of us miss one important variable, our need to be showing up to the process too.

Breakups and the grief associated take time to move through but there must also be an active effort on our part. I have gone through loss before and I have also prolonged periods of loss due to my inability to show up in a way that allowed time to do its work.

Time will only heal the wound if we stop ripping it open. We must be conscious of how we are spending our time in our minds in order to save us from unnecessary prolonged pain.


The mind is a powerful tool. The way that we use it can have significant impacts on our ability to let go of people in our lives. Our brains do not know the difference between what we are imagining and what is occurring in real-time. Studies have shown this. This is significant because whilst we may be getting physical distance away from an individual, we will not be getting mental distance from them if we are choosing to continue engaging with them in our minds.


Due to our mind's inability to tell reality and imagination apart, ruminating and looping on “the good times” and idealising a past relationship will release similar biological chemicals as if the memories were occurring in real-time.

We have all reminisced on a past moment only to feel similar feelings and emotions as if that moment were occurring again. These memories feel good to think about and that is why we keep doing it. Issues arise in-light of breakups as while trying to actively detach from someone, an over-investment in these types of thoughts will do the exact opposite to what you need to be doing, which is getting space from them.

Studies have shown that bonding neurotransmitters such as oxytocin are released when visualising acts of kindness so it is not unreasonable to assume that they would also be released when imagining positive scenarios with a past loved one. It is difficult to move on from someone when you are constantly bringing past memories to your consciousness. We must be able to let these memories fall into the past in order for us to move forward — more on this later-.

You have to wonder then how effective time is if we are consistently daydreaming and indulging in past fantasies? Time will only do some much if we are not being attentive to how we are spending time with our minds.

Re-living Trauma

Imagining negative scenarios brings about a negative reaction in our bodies. That is a fact. Anxiety manifests in the mind and is primarily due to negatively charged future thinking. Just as cortisol and adrenaline is released into the body during anxious situations, they are also released when we imagine anxious situations. We think about a work meeting or a project deadline and our heart-rate begins to increase, our thoughts begin to race and our palms become sweaty. All a result of an attachment to imagination and our brains inability to distinguish it from reality. David R. Hamilton Ph.D, talks about this a lot on his website.

How does this relate to break-ups and letting people go? Well, if we are constantly mulling over negative stories such as how the relationship ended, how you felt or how betrayed you feel, you will find it very difficult to move on even when time begins to pass. I have spent months being caught up on particular relationships that should have been no more than a blip due to this very reason. I would replay old scenarios, imagine future scenarios, what I would say, how things could be different — or any other million variations — essentially holding onto memories that should be left behind. After all as Carl Jung says and as I spoke about in my previous post;

“What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size” — Carl Jung

In holding onto these memories, pain will be consistently re-lived. Pain that was felt in reality a few months ago may still feel very fresh if we are spending a large amount of time re-playing over events in our minds. We must give ourselves room to heal and that is not possible when we are psychoanalysing and stirring up painful memories.

There comes a point where that book needs to be left on the shelf. By re-visiting these negative experiences — often obsessively as part of rumination during grief — we are inhibiting our ability to move on. While physically distant from the individual, we must be mentally distant. Time will only get you so far if you are not willing to let go of the pain.

After all, resistance to anything is resistance to our reality. Your pain is due to the fact you do not agree with what has happened and that is fine but we can not move on if we are in a continued state of resistance, not truly. You will remain stuck and a victim to your past. There is no growth found in victimisation because to be a victim you are at the mercy of someone else’s actions. As Eckhart Tolle says;

Emotional suffering is created in the moment we don’t accept what is” — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Reinforcing Rewards

Okay, the single biggest thing that I believe hinders our ability to let time do its job is this. Each time you are rehashing an old memory or thinking about how good this person was for you, you are reinforcing the belief within yourself that they are someone you should be with. In more technical terms, you are reinforcing a belief in your brain that there is a reward there with that person. That they are a source of something good. Our brains are literally wired to hold to hold onto that.

Deep in our emotional brain, a set of structures collectively known as the limbic system work to remember the things that make you feel good so that you do them again. Dopamine modulates this pathway and is released whenever something makes you feel good — yes, relationships too -. Your brain then works to create an attachment to that thing by remember the how, what, where and why you got it so that you can do it again.

Thousands of years ago this system was brilliant for creating cravings in us in order to seek out valuable and essential things that warranted our survival — reproduction, food, shelter — however, in this day and age, it is more of a hindrance than a benefit to us. Many of us do not even recognise that this part of the brain drives many of our unhealthy behaviours today.

Where does this apply in relationships? It is guaranteed that during your relationship, your brain formed a reward attachment with that individual. In any relationship the fact your partner made you feel good would have reinforced their status as something valuable in your brain time after time after time. This is why it can almost feel as if you are literally craving that individual when you are apart from them — in instances of a breakup for example-, because you essentially are:

“Intense passionate love uses the same system of the brain that gets activated when a person becomes addicted to drugs” Gregory L Jantz PH.D in Psychology Today

Matters are made worse if you were the individual who was broken up with. In this instance there will likely be a sense of low self-worth and self-esteem in light of your rejection that will ironically, strengthen this attachment even more.

Being out of a relationship can trigger feelings of depression and anxiety. Emotional response, then, becomes intertwined with physical response, each supporting the other. This creates a powerful pull toward relationships. The relationship becomes the goal — the prize — that allows the person to feel good and reduce pain — Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D in Psychology Today

Due to damaged self-worth your brain will seek out the very thing that caused the damage in an attempt to make you feel good again. This also has the potential to create intermittent rewards that mirror gambling as part of an attraction of deprivation.

Now this does not mean that you will only be seeking them out in reality — checking their social media, reading old messages, seeing old photos — but also in your mind. As I said at the beginning, your brain does not know the difference between imagination and reality. Fantasy can then become an extremely slippery slope in-light of breakups.

You have to restrain yourself from fantasising because this oh so innocent act is actually your brains way of seeking a reward. Carrying out this behaviour over and over will not allow you to detach from that person as your brain will continue associating that person with a reward so long as you are feeling good when thinking about them — which you will -.

A negative loop so to speak then develops because as upon returning back to reality and realising that you actually do not have that person, you will be struck with emotions such as sadness, shame and guilt which will perpetuate the cycle even further. Your inability to feel good in the present will push you to more fantasy to seek out more reward.

How Do We Combat This?

Time will only get you so far. When the term “ time heals all wounds “ is used it should be noted that that means both physically and mentally. Physical time apart will only get you so far if you are still mentally engaging with that person. After all, if we are going by our brains logic, there is on difference between its perception of physical reality and mental imagination.

What you MUST be aware of is how much time you are spending in your mind. You must also be aware of how you are using your mind — or how susceptible you are to being used by it! -. Eckhart Tolle talks about how many of us are being used by our minds rather than use using it. I could not agree more. This is where the effort is required on your part to move forward. if you simply relegate to allowing “time” to do its job, you will likely still be engaging in daydreams, rumination and fantasy. All of which will keep you tied to that individual and keep you stuck.

You must break the mental chains. When you find yourself daydreaming about them, stop yourself. When you find yourself ruminating, stop yourself. How great the sex was, how they made you feel, that holiday, their smile, your sadness now they are gone, all of it must be stopped. Bring yourself back to the present moment.

I could not recommend meditation enough for anyone going through a breakup because you must cultivate a sense of awareness around your thoughts or you will get dragged into unhealthy thought patterns that are only going to prolong your attachment to that individual, and as a result, your pain.

If there are underlying self-esteem and self-worth issues, they need to be addressed. You need to find fulfilment and satisfaction independent of that person save your mind seeking them out as a source of reward. You need to remove them from a pedestal and stop idealising them as something greater than you. All of this whimsical thinking must be challenged.

Closing Thoughts

This process is difficult but with a little resilience, you can overcome it. As I said prior, I have been in positions where I have clung on to trauma way long than needed due to my mental attachment to it. Recognise your patterns of thought early and mentally challenge each daydream/fantasy that comes up. Over time, the effort will payoff and the more mental distance you get, the weaker the attachment will become and the less frequent the unhealthy distractions.

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Above The Middle

Above The Middle

Joe Gibson. I created Above The Middle as a place for all things psychology, neurology + personal development. Follow for frequent articles.