The breakup of a romantic relationship is one of the most emotionally difficult experiences a person will go through. It is associated with very high levels of emotional distress and, from a biological perspective, is followed by the overflow of stress chemicals released by the brain. These chemical changes are so strong that they often lead to behaviour that is unusual for a person – this is why people often talk of ‘acting crazy’ following a breakup. Below are some helpful approaches that may minimise the long-term breakup fallout for our health, other relationships, and general sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.
Stay away from unhealthy chemical fixes
At these times, it can be very tempting to look to chemical solutions to relieve distress – smoking, alcohol, drugs, sleeping pills, junk food – anything to produce temporary relief from our strong, unpleasant emotions. Given the intense, chemical nature of the stress response associated with a breakup, it is understandable that people seek these short-term solutions, as nothing else generally helps people feel better in the highly emotional period immediately following a break up.
However, it is important to acknowledge the long-term effects of these substances – weight gain, addiction and dependency, lung and liver damage, to name a few. These are outcomes that generally take a great deal of time and effort to correct, so when experiencing the urge to reach for another glass of wine or grab another cigarette out of the pack, it is important to consider whether these are outcomes that you are willing to deal with because of the relationship that ended.
Exercise is an excellent short-term method of chemically boosting mood following a breakup, as the endorphins it produces usually elevate mood temporarily. It can also be useful to exercise regularly in order to establish a routine, fill up your free time, get some regular fresh air, spend time around others and do something that contributes positively to your sense of wellbeing and self-efficacy.
Minimise contact with your ex-partner
Even if your long-term aim is to remain friends with your ex-partner, communicating with them regularly during the initial stages of a breakup (when you usually feel highly emotional, lonely and vulnerable) is generally unhelpful. It can lead to increased conflict, as the ex-partner is more available to receive all the negative comments entering your mind as you process the failed relationship.
Ongoing contact can also lead to the hope of rekindling of the relationship that was not working, because both parties are seeking to alleviate post-breakup loneliness. An ex-partner is often viewed as a more comfortable option than waiting until emotions settle and someone new comes along. Falling into this pattern can lead to being trapped in a dysfunctional relationship, or simply prolongs the termination of the relationship (which prolongs the associated emotional distress and ability to move on).
Finally, the passing of time is the single best remedy for reducing the unpleasant feelings associated with a past relationship and moving on. When we continually engage with our ex-partner, the relationship is still current and therefore the time and space we need in order to process and move on from the relationship is not there, and distress is prolonged unnecessarily.
Deal with rumination
Following a break-up, it is common to experience rumination about an ex-partner’s negative characteristics and actions that contributed to the relationship ending. It is also common to experience guilt regarding one’s own role in the partnership breaking down. We often imagine conversations and arguments with our ex-partner where we convey our dissatisfaction with them, apologise for our actions and sometimes even reason our way back into the relationship.
This is normal, however, as mentioned above, it is not usually helpful to communicate every single thought to our ex-partner as the relationship has ended and no clear positive outcome will be achieved. Unfortunately, with nowhere to go, we can often become very caught up in these thoughts. They can impact on our ability to sleep, engage with other people, focus at work or even enjoy simple pleasures in life, like reading a good book or watching our favourite TV show. The following are useful approaches to rumination…
- Write it down – At times when you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts, it can be helpful to write them down, perhaps as a letter to your ex-partner, or to yourself. Though it can also be helpful to talk to friends about what you are thinking, it is important not to overload any one person with what is going through your mind, as it can be overwhelming to be on the receiving end of so many confused thoughts (and no amount of good advice will be able to ‘tame’ the thoughts anyway!). Depending on the circumstances of the breakup, after some time it may be helpful to write a final letter to your ex-partner or have one final interaction with them that summarises what you would really like to say to them. This can be helpful for moving towards closure, however, before doing this it is important to consider what boundaries should be in place for you and your ex-partner in order to minimise potential emotional confusion.
- Mindfulness meditation – There are some excellent mindfulness meditation apps out there! One of them is ‘Get Some Headspace’, available through the app store. The purpose of mindfulness is not to get rid of unpleasant thoughts or relax, it is about learning how to sit with both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts without getting too caught up in them, so that you are better able to engage with the present moment. This may be helpful for better focusing at work or enjoying the things you used to without becoming too distracted.
- Seeking counselling – If you find that your emotional distress and racing thoughts are really impacting your daily functioning and do not seem to be reducing in their intensity over time, it can be helpful to find professional support through a counsellor or psychologist.
Get in touch with your values
When we are aware of and engaged with what is truly important to us – such as gaining knowledge, creative expression, friendship, family or serving the community – we tend to feel more satisfied with how we are spending our time, be more easily absorbed in these activities and enjoy life more. This does not mean that doing what is important to us will eliminate all unpleasant thoughts and feelings following a breakup, but they can be helpful ingredients for moving on and commencing this new stage of our life.
If you have recently experienced a relationship breakup and feel that you would benefit from additional assistance, Strategic Psychology in Canberra’s CBD is a psychology practice offering professional support to people going through difficult life transitions. Please call (02) 6262 6157 or email firstname.lastname@example.org in order to arrange an appointment.