Dealing With Depression After a Breakup

Breakups are hard, especially when they come as a shock. It’s natural to go through a lot of painful emotions. You might even get physical symptoms like headaches or chest pain. These should lessen over time. If they don’t, you might have depression.

You don’t have to go through your breakup alone. Talk to your doctor if your down mood never lifts or it gets in the way of your daily life. Together, you can find the right treatment to help you move on.

Why Breakups Are Hard

Romantic love can be like a drug. It triggers the release of “feel good” chemicals in your brain. Losing it in a breakup can cause emotional and physical problems, like anxiety and tiredness.

Emotional stress can also send out a rush of stress hormones that make you feel like you’re having a heart attack. That’s called broken heart syndrome.

And sometimes your identity gets wrapped up in the “we” of your relationship. That means a breakup can disrupt how you think about yourself. You might feel uneasy as you adjust to your new self-concept.

Some other common symptoms after a breakup include:

  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • A change in appetite
  • Sleep trouble

A breakup tends to cause more distress in certain situations. That includes:

  • You don’t expect it.
  • You are very committed.
  • You live together.
  • You feel rejected or betrayed.
  • You’re a teenager or young adult.
  • You’re a woman.

How to Tell if You’re Depressed

It’s common to feel crummy for a while after a breakup. But major depressive disorder, or clinical depression, is different than normal sadness. It’s constant, lasts at least 2 weeks, and can affect all aspects of your life. Stressful life events, like a breakup, can trigger depression. But it’s possible to have depression-like symptoms without having a mood disorder. It’s important to know what symptoms to look for.

To have clinical depression, you need to have several of the following:

  • Ongoing sadness or worry
  • An “empty” feeling
  • Irritability
  • Tiredness
  • General feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • No hope for the future
  • Less interest in things you used to like
  • Appetite changes
  • Sleep problems
  • Trouble thinking clearly or making decisions
  • Slow moving or talking
  • Restlessness
  • Headache
  • Body pain or stomach problems
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

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Risk Factors

Most people don’t develop depression after a breakup. But it’s more likely to happen in certain instances. That includes:

  • You have a history of depression. You’re more likely to have another depressive episode if you’ve had one in the past.
  • You misuse drugs and alcohol. A substance use disorder can mask a hidden mood disorder or make depression worse.
  • You have an adjustment disorder. This is a condition where you have a very strong reaction to stress or unexpected change. Your depression symptoms might take 3-6 months to go away. In some cases, it might take longer.
  • You lack social support. If you’re depressed, you might pull away from your friends and family. On the flip side, loneliness can worsen your sadness.
  • You have multiple stressors at once. Your breakup might be harder to handle if you have to move, get a different job, or have another kind of change or loss at the same time.

How to Heal

It’ll take some time, but there are steps you can take to get through your breakup. Everyone is different, so what helps someone else might not work for you. The important thing is that you take care of yourself along the way.

Here are some healthy ways to feel better:

  • Avoid social media. You might be tempted to check up on your ex. But these reminders might trigger bad feelings and slow down your recovery.
  • Avoid your ex. This isn’t always possible, especially if you have kids. But try to limit contact as much as possible right after the breakup.
  • Set thought boundaries. You’re more likely to get depressed if you ruminate. That’s when you think about something over and over again. You might gain some control over your obsessive thoughts if you reserve only a certain amount of time each day -- say, 30 minutes -- to process your breakup.
  • Meditate. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to focus on the present moment. Studies show the practice might help you worry and ruminate less.
  • Exercise . Physical activity a few times a week for 3-6 months might help lessen symptoms of depression in some people.
  • Go easy on yourself. A breakup can hurt your self-esteem. Instead of dwelling on what you did wrong, try to learn from your mistakes. That’ll help you have better relationships down the road.
  • Talk about how you’re doing. Don’t keep your feelings bottled up. One study showed people felt better when they met with researchers to discuss how well they were handling their breakup.
  • Don’t isolate yourself. Even if you don’t talk about your breakup, it’s important to connect with other people. If you can’t meet in person, text or video chat with friends or family.
  • Look to the future. Thoughts of your next relationship might help you feel hopeful going forward.

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When to Get Professional Help

Check in with your primary doctor or a psychologist if your low mood is constant and doesn’t get any better after a couple of weeks. You should make an appointment earlier if you can’t do normal activities, like bathe, eat, or go to work.

Your doctor might want you to try one or both of the following:

  • Talk therapy. A counselor can help you process your thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. You might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy, or problem-solving therapy.
  • Medication. Antidepressants work on chemicals in your brain that affect how you feel and deal with stress. You might need to try several options to find the right one. Give them at least 2-4 weeks to work. Don’t stop taking them without talking to your doctor first.
  • Get help right away if you think about hurting yourself. Thoughts of suicide are a serious symptom of depression. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time of day at 800-273-8255.
WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella on August 26, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Sarah Rosenbloom, clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine; clinical psychologist, Sarah Rosenbloom & Associates.

Mental Health Centre, University of Alberta: “Surviving a Relationship Break-Up — Top 20 Strategies.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Broken Heart Syndrome.”

PLoS One: “Romantic relationship breakup: An experimental model to study effects of stress on depression (-like) symptoms).”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Romantic Love vs. Drug Addiction May Inspire a New Treatment for Addiction,” “Mindfulness and Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in the General Population: The Mediating Roles of Worry, Rumination, Reappraisal and Suppression,” “Physical Exercise in Major Depression: Reducing the Mortality Gap While Improving Clinical Outcomes.”  

Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin: “Who and I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept.”

International Journal of Behavioral Research & Psychology: “Romantic Breakup Distress, Betrayal and Heartbreak: A Review.”

Journal of Family Psychology: “Breaking up is Hard to do: The Impact of Unmarried Relationship Dissolution on Mental Health and Life Satisfaction.”

Behavioral Sciences: “Young Love: Romantic Concerns and Associated Mental Health Issues among Adolescent Help-Seekers.”

National Institute of Mental Health: “Depression.”

Alcohol Research: “Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders.”

Social Psychology and Personality Science: “Participating in Research on Romantic Breakups Promotes Emotional Recovery via Changes in Self-Concept Clarity.”

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: “National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.”

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