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It’s normal to go through a series of stages after a breakup: the ‘crying’ and ‘eating ice-cream’ stage, the ‘silent’ and ‘don’t want to talk about it’ stage, the ‘angrily yelling’? and, at some point in future, “acceptance”. No matter how long you and your partner were together, losing someone important to you can affect your well-being in a variety of major ways. It’s not unusual to struggle with your mental health after a breakup.
But even though it’s unfortunately common for people to have a tough time after a breakup, that doesn’t mean you should suffer through this period alone, or without resources to guide you forward. There are plenty of ways to feel like yourself again, boost your mental health during this difficult time, and get professional help if you need it.
To learn about healthy ways to cope after a split, I spoke with clinical psychologist Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. He offered insight into the changes you might feel in your mental health after a breakup, plus tips for how to manage each new feeling. The light at the end of the tunnel is closer than you might think.
An unexpected and unwanted breakup can cause considerable psychological distress. You may feel as if you have been kicked in the stomach or blindsided and knocked down. Feelings of rejection and self-doubt are common, as is the feeling of being stuck and unable to let go, even when one wants to. Friends and family may push you to get over it and move on, yet brain research suggests this can be very difficult to do, at least in the first few months.
Psychology and medicine have identified a series of physical and mental conditions that are related to breakups. Depression, anger, and fear are just some of the experienced effects the two parties go through. These discoveries have made us wonder if it’s possible that all those issues already inhabited your body and it was only a matter of time before they erupted.
It is pertinent to mention here that if you have a current or pre-existing mental health condition, breakups can trigger that behavior.
While these effects are more pronounced in people who experience mental health distress or disorders, anyone can feel the negative impact of a breakup. “Breakups bring mental health to the surface,” Courtney Geter, a licensed marriage and family therapist says. “They cause distorted, inaccurate thoughts that just aren’t true.” And those dark thoughts can really test your emotional resilience.
Since all breakups are different, everyone deals with them differently based on the intensity of the relationship, the vulnerability you experienced within that relationship and the communication you had with your partner during and after the breakup. “A breakup is grief,” Geter says. “It’s a loss. How I experience grief is how I go through a breakup, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it.” For this reason, there’s no perfect cure for the breakup blues. However, Geter has five coping mechanisms that’ll help you navigate the mental disorders and grief that a breakup can leave in its wake.
Maybe you two went to the gym together, had a regular Friday night meal out at your favorite restaurant, or always did Sunday brunch together. After the breakup, you may feel a period of “not knowing where to go” or “what to do,” Dr. Klapow tells Elite Daily.
So next? You set up new places to go and things to do.
“This is a time to think, then explore yourself,” says Dr. Klapow. “So make sure you attend to your basic needs” by getting proper nutritious foods, sleeping, exercising, and engaging socially, then find a new routine that works for you.
If you and your ex used to run together, maybe give cycling a try. Change your Friday night dinner dates to Saturday girls’ night outs, and bring a good book to read while eating bagels out solo on Sunday.
People who have recently been rejected by their partners often develop obsessive thinking. They may ruminate persistently about the ex-partner, how they are feeling, whether they are missing the relationship, and so on. These thoughts or feelings of loss may be triggered by places they used to go to together, people they used to hang out with, holidays, and everyday rituals that were shared. In this sense, processing a breakup is a bit like dealing with a trauma.
The person cycles through periods of avoiding the emotional pain and being able to distract herself, and periods of being flooded by intense feelings and obsessive thoughts. There also seems to be a gender difference, in that men are more likely to distract and avoid feelings, and women more likely to obsess and ruminate. This may be because women have been socialized to take more responsibility for relationships, leading to more time spent thinking about what went wrong or what they could have done differently.
When a relationship ends, it can be tough to handle. Familiar routines, places and objects suddenly seem tinged with pain and sadness, and the simplest of tasks – like turning up to work, or cooking dinner – can feel impossible.
To power through your new reality, it’s key to alter your outlook. You need to put psychological distance between you and your break-up and end the destructive cycle. In these dark moments, it is all about ownership and control. Always remember this is just a phase of your life and that brighter days are in the near horizon. You will eventually ease into it and be ready to get back to normal life.
- Start a breakup diaryYou need clarity as you’ll be surrounded by breakup fog. Use this opportunity to explore what you are feeling and what’s right for you in the here and now. Always keep a divorce or breakup diary as the process of writing down – physically transferring your thoughts from your head onto paper – is a proven therapeutic technique. Start with your feelings (‘I feel’), the emotion (fear, for example), the reason (e.g. I need to know my financial rights), positive action to take solve this problem (e.g. I need to find a part-time job tomorrow). This diary will also be very useful to see how far you have come and how you have healed on this journey. You’ll soon realise what’s good for you and what isn’t.
- Fuel your mind with new positive thingsAvoid re-living and chewing on past events, memories and negative feelings of pain and regret. The more you dwell on negative thoughts, the deeper your brain gets into an unhelpful habitual groove and anxious patterns occur. Interruption and distraction are the effective means to let go of negative emotions and move on, so, rewire your brain to create new habits which will become your default mode, with practice. Art in all its forms is a wonderful way to salve pain.Distract yourself with music – a heart wrenching power ballad does wonders – explore dance, literature, singing, poetry or focus on reading to fill your mind with new concepts. If you can afford it, take up a new hobby like dance or have a short weekend break away with good friends to create new memories. All of these are very effective ways of letting go of negative thoughts because you’ll be surrounding yourself with new energy that will feed and nourish your mind.
- Prioritize self-care and nourish yourselfRemember, you don’t have to have it together all the time. Cry if you need to and let yourself feel. You won’t have a healthy mind if you don’t allow it to express itself. While you look after your mind, be sure to fuel your body with nourishing foods as you need to keep your strength up for yourself when you are feeling low.Regular exercise can help maintain sanity too. I find that the best form of exercise is power walking – being out and communing with the simple pleasures of nature is very healing, especially at this time of year. Overall, a big part of self-care is keeping a healthy environment, so surround yourself with loving people who bring out the best in you. Ditch the naysayers who crowd you with toxic negativity. No one needs them.
- Manage your home environmentBrighten up your life by decluttering your home and get rid of furniture that is associated with your ex-partner. A clean house is a clean mind. Infuse an air of tranquility into your home with scented candles and fresh flowers. When we have beautiful weather, fling open the windows and let fresh air in to breathe new spring life into your home.
- Don’t underestimate the power of appearanceJust because your relationship is over, doesn’t mean your desire to look good has disappeared with it. For men or women suffering a breakup and battling mental health issues, you should aim to look how you want to look, not how you feel you should look. Looking amazing is a powerful antidote as it can positively affect the way you view yourself. Wear clothes that make you feel confident and embrace your body, your style, and everything that makes you, you. That confidence will radiate from you and make you feel amazing.
- Process your emotions properlyInstead of constantly refreshing your ex’s Facebook page, writing down how you’re feeling is a much healthier way of dealing with what’s happened. “Writing down our thoughts and labelling our emotions is really important when it comes to processing them,” says anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution; Chloe Brotheridge.“In the aftermath of a breakup, your instinct might be to keep busy and distract yourself constantly. While this can help at specific times, we also need to process those emotions instead of bottling them up and just pushing on through.”Chloe suggests writing whatever comes into your head as a starting point, adding:”Write a stream of consciousness, making note of all the thoughts that come up for you. Then start to investigate these feelings – is there anything there that’s useful or insightful? It might be helpful to consult ‘The Feelings Wheel’ which is a list of all the emotions we can experience. For example, recognizing that what you’re feeling is ‘shame’ or ‘vulnerability’ can be helpful because labeling our feelings helps us to regulate them, and feel better.”
- Learn from it
“We all want to avoid the pain of a break up, numb it and forget it as swiftly as possible,” says Hilda. “But what if there was something to be gained from the pain of a break-up, something we’d be cheating ourselves out of by avoiding? Can we really know joy without ever having experienced pain? Happiness without sadness, or love without heartbreak? I don’t think so. People adopt many different strategies following a break up – sedation via drink/drugs, oblivion via a new lover or even denial that their ex ever meant much to do them.”Instead, aim to recognize both the good and the not-so-good in the defunct relationship – look at your own part in both building and ending the relationship. The challenge is to do this without getting drawn into the self-blame game. If we do this in a way that’s both honest and kind to ourselves, we can learn a lot about our relationship patterns. Which means we shouldn’t make the same mistakes in future relationships…”
- Remember, this is as bad as it getsAccording to integrative psychotherapist and couples’ counselor Hilda Burke, it’s helpful to remember that this is the worst it’s going to get. “It may be a cliché but time really does help heal most wounds,” she says.”While the lapse of weeks and months helps dull the pain, it also allows ourselves time to grieve. I’ve worked with many clients who were nursing broken hearts and the first step in healing is to engage with the pain – to recognize it and acknowledge what we have lost. Only by doing that can we hope to move on.”
- Make future plansYou might feel like never leaving your sofa, but texting your friends to make plans for the weekend is one of the best things you can do for Future You.Chloe says “For many people going through a breakup, evenings and weekends can be the toughest because it’s time you may have spent with your partner. Scheduling activities in advance with other people can help you to create structure, stay motivated and receive much-needed social support. While you might be feeling a need to withdraw, planning things in advance means you’re more likely to get out and do things when the day arrives, which could be exactly what you need.”
It’s important to never blame yourself when you get broken up with. Even if they’re cruel enough to outright say that it was your fault, do not blame yourself. That is a lie. It is not your fault. You are who you are, and your battles are your battles. You deserve someone who will love all of who you are through all of your battles. You deserve someone who will love every inch of you wholeheartedly. You are worthy of that love and you should never settle.
At the end of the day, no matter who comes and goes, no matter who loves you only to break your heart, you need to remember to love yourself. I deserve it. You deserve it.