Anyone who has been through a break-up will tell you how much it hurts. When the person you care about the most tells you they don’t want to be with you anymore, it can feel like your whole world is falling apart. Breakups are never easy.
The end of a relationship can flip your world upside down and trigger a range of emotions. Some people quickly accept the demise of a relationship and move on, but others may deal with depression.
This can be a heartbreaking time, and it can feel as if your world is falling apart. There are psychological effects of breaking up with someone… whether you are the “dumper” or the “dumpee.”
When a serious relationship ends and it was either unwanted or not expected, the initial response is most often one of panic and confusion, because a sudden breakup is similar to other traumatic events a person can experience (where something familiar and trusted is taken from them, often without warning.)
If the Break Up Was Unwanted (The Dumpee Experience):
The most common psychological effects experienced by the person being dumped are:
- Stress Response
- Identity Shift
Pain: The psychological pain experienced when we are rejected, betrayed, or abandoned is very real. The pain can also be excruciating. The same part of the brain that processes physical pain is activated when the emotional pain of a breakup is felt, and the person feels, behaves, and reacts in a similar way as someone who is in a great deal of physical pain. It may be that people who say it feels like their heart has been broken are describing a real physically painful sensation. For adolescents, in particular, breakups can precede the development of major depression, partly because they may not yet have the life skills and experience to manage the psychological pain associated with the end of a significant relationship.
Obsession/Rumination: Because romantic love actually activates the part of the brain which is associated with cravings for food and drugs, a similar experience of craving and withdrawal is to be expected following a breakup.
The person experiencing a breakup can’t stop thinking about their ex and their past, the “good times,” going over and over what went wrong and what they might have been able to do to prevent the breakup. Seeking to reconnect with the ex-partner or continue to want to be some part of their lives is normal, and can include everything from the classic “drunk texting the ex” to the more dangerous forms of obsession and criminal stalking behavior.
Stress Response: The person is attempting to come to terms with a traumatic event, the end of an important relationship. Like other traumatic events, a person can respond with feelings of shock, being in denial, attempts to bargain with the ex to reconsider, feeling angry and sad, grieving, and eventually coming to accept that it’s over.
The brain is wired to perceive disconnection from sources of love and attention as highly distressing. To be dumped on the savannah by your tribe, by your mother upon whom you depend completely, or by your partner whom you trust is psychologically scary, painful, and stressful.
As the person is attempting to cope, all of the normal responses to being in a high-stress state can occur. The person’s appetite and sleep, ability to pay attention and concentrate, energy and motivation, and immune system can all be affected.
OTHER STUDIES HAVE ALSO SHOWN HOW BREAK-UP STRESS CAN CAUSE ACNE, LOSS OF APPETITE, AND SORE MUSCLES
Identity Shift: The person experiences an immediate shift in identity from being a part of a couple to being single again. Rapid shifts in identity cause disorientation for most people, requiring time and emotional and cognitive processing to reorient to their new identity. There can be a loss of status, home, friends, time with children, extended family, places of worship, financial resources, and other changes and losses that must be dealt with, but are not often anticipated. Above all, the loss of “what might have been” must be grieved to acceptance.
Healthy vs. unhealthy symptoms of a breakup
Since symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe, it’s often difficult to know whether sadness and grief are a normal reaction to a breakup or a sign of something more serious like depression.
It’s okay to grieve the loss of a relationship as you begin the healing process. But this doesn’t suggest that every emotion you feel is a normal reaction. There are healthy and unhealthy symptoms of a breakup. Knowing the differences between these symptoms can help you determine whether you’re experiencing depression.
Healthy symptoms of a breakup may include:
- anger and frustration
- crying and sadness
- loss of interest in activities
These symptoms are troublesome. But if you’re experiencing a normal reaction to the breakup, your emotional state will improve little by little as you adjust to life without your partner. The amount of time it takes to heal varies for each person, so be patient.
While it’s normal to feel sadness and pain after a breakup, you should talk to a doctor if your symptoms don’t start to improve after a few weeks, or if they get worse. To be diagnosed with depression, you must experience at least five of the following nine symptoms for a period of at least two weeks:
- feeling sad, empty, or hopeless for most of the day nearly every day
- loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- weight loss and loss of appetite, or increase of appetite and weight gain
- sleeping either too little or too much
- an increase in movements like pacing or hand wringing, or having significantly slower speech and movement
- feeling as if you have no energy for most of the day
- feeling worthless
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- thoughts about death, also called suicidal ideation
Depression can happen to anyone after a breakup, but some people are at greater risk. The cause of depression varies, but you may experience these feelings if you have a personal history of depression or another mood disorder. Other factors that may contribute to depression after a breakup include hormonal changes or simultaneously enduring another major change in your life, such as a job loss or the loss of a loved one.
What happens if depression goes untreated?
Recognizing signs of depression after a breakup and getting help for this condition can lower the risk of complications. If left untreated, you may rely on alcohol or drugs to numb emotional pain. Depression also takes a toll on your physical health. You may experience joint pain, headaches, and unexplained stomach pain. Additionally, chronic stress can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Emotional eating can cause excessive weight gain and increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes
Other complications of depression may include:
- panic attacks
- problems at home, work, or school
- suicidal thoughts
Treatments for depression
Ways to cope with depression that don’t involve professional help include:
Exercise: Physical activity can strengthen your immune system and boost your energy. Exercise also increases your body’s production of endorphins, which can improve your mood. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity at least three times a week.
Keep busy: Explore hobbies and keep your mind occupied. If you’re feeling depressed, read a book, go for a walk, or start a project around the house.
Get plenty of sleep: Getting plenty of rest can also improve your mental well-being and help you cope after a breakup.
Herbal and natural remedies: If you don’t want to take a prescription medication, ask your doctor about supplements used for depression, such as St. John’s wort, S-adenosylmethionine or SAMe, and omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish oil. Some supplements can’t be combined with prescription medication, so consult your doctor beforehand. You can also explore alternative therapies for depression, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and meditation.