How to Deal With the Post-Breakup Blues

You’ve probably heard the news that Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez split up. While teenage girls everywhere were probably delighted to learn of this development, one thing is for sure: Bieber and Gomez, the erstwhile young lovers, are now coping with post-breakup life. Breaking up is hard–especially when you’re young and especially when you’re in the public spotlight.

If the two teeny-bopper celebrities are like other people their age, they will probably cope by listening to a lot of angsty music, by moping around, and by depressive journaling in their Moleskine notebooks. From my anecdotal and unscientific experience, that’s how most young adults deal with breaking up. Maybe it’s how most regular adults deal with it too. From the Atlantic:

It’s a paradigm of traditional psychology to have distressed patients express their feeling in writing — the experience, as anyone who’s kept an angsty diary (guilty) will attest to, can feel extremely cathartic. Newer theories have focused on the ability to form a coherent narrative as important to the coping and recovery process following a traumatic event. Researchers at the University of Arizona hypothesized that focusing creative word vomit into narrative form could help patients with the highest tendency to ruminate about the past to pull themselves together and move on following divorce.

But is this post-breakup ritual effective? Is it the best way to get over your former love and move on? The researchers mentioned above tested whether journaling about a breakup would help recently divorced or separated participants overcome their post-breakup blues. Here’s how the study ran:

Ninety recently divorced or separated men and women were asked to write in a journal for 20 minutes a day, over three consecutive days. Some of them were instructed to “really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts;” others were asked to record the tale of their failed marriage as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Those remaining kept an opinion and emotion-free log of their daily activities. The researchers assessed the participants’ emotional baselines before the journal-thon began, and then followed up 8 months later.

Given the conventional wisdom that writing about negative experiences can be cathartic, the results of the study were rather surprising. The participants who ruminated the most on their breakup and “were judged to be actively engaged in the search for meaning” fared the worst on the various depressive scales in a follow  up. They made the least progress in “dealing with their emotions when instructed to express their emotions through writing.” The participants that fared the best were those in the control group–those who kept an emotions-free log of their daily activities.

The implication is that dwelling on negative events is not as cathartic as assumed–in fact, it prolongs your depression, suffering, and angst. Justin Bieber, step away from your journal.

Contrast this study with another study, published in 2008, which also involved writing about an intensely emotional experience. This time, though, participants in the experimental condition of the study were asked to write about an intensely positive experience (the participants here were not in a post-breakup situation).

The researchers examined the effects of writing about intensely positive experiences (IPE) by randomly assigning ninety undergraduates to write either about an intensely positive experience for twenty minutes three days in a row or to write about a control topic. When the participants were followed up with three months later to obtain information about their health, the results of the study were provocative: students in the IPE group not only reported greater positive moods in the three-month follow-up, but they also got sick and visited the health clinic less often than participants in the control group.

As I mentioned, the participants in the IPE study were not dealing with post-breakup angst, but thinking about these two studies together raises some tantalizing question: If you’re trying to get over a breakup, are you better off refocusing your thoughts on the positive? Are you better off listening to happy music rather than depressing music?  Are you better off journaling about positive experiences rather than those experiences that bring you pain?

What do you think?

  1. M. T. S.

    “If you’re trying to get over a breakup, are you better off refocusing your thoughts on the positive?”

    Yes.

    I had a relationship end recently, and when I spent time ruminating on what happened/why, I always felt worse after. Only when I started focusing on other things in my life did I begin feeling positive.

  2. Mafuta Kizola

    The best remedy if for your mates to take you out, and possibly meet someone else and feel good about life.

    The biggest problems about thinking over the negatives is that you will either hate your former lover after you rationalize her scheming, especially if cheating was the cause, and if you were the cheat you will feel like sewer rat for breaking her heart. Both cases happened to me in the past and the more I kept on rotating around it the more self-destructive I got.

  3. Richard Finlay

    So, “The Power of Positive Thinking” was right all along, huh?

  4. Misthiocracy

    Very good article Emily.

    I’ve long been astounded that the old “let it out, talk about your feelings” myth has continued to survive, considering what we know about how the brain works.

    When one vocalizes a thought (or writes the thought down), the “pathways” in the brain that store that thought become stronger and more resilient.

    If you say a shopping list out loud, you’re much more likely to remember it than if you merely “make a mental note”, for example. So, why on Earth would anyone thing repeatedly talking about an unpleasant experience would reduce the painful memory of that experience? On the contrary, repeatedly talking about the experience works to solidify the memory of it in the brain.

    It’s like, from the brain’s point of view, “if he’s talking about it, this must be an important memory.  I’d better hold on to it, and remind him about it often.”

    The better advice, to just “let things go”, is unfairly dismissed as an attempt to “repress” the memory, but that is only true if the memory has already been “imprinted” on the brain (like memory of a violent event, for example).

  5. Misthiocracy

    A similar tidbit: Apparently, tears contain a high amount of the hormone that is attributed to sadness.  In other words, when you cry you are literally expelling sadness from your body, and you subsequently feel better.

    This is why the advice to “cry it out” sometimes makes sense.

    The problem is that hormones are drugs, and like all drugs there’s always a down-side.

    When the levels of “sadness hormone” drop suddenly in the body, there’s also a subsequent increase in the hormone attributed to happiness and pleasure.  This is the same hormone that is sometimes compared to drugs like cocaine.

    In other words, crying can be addictive.

    As a natural reaction to pain, crying is the body’s normal strategy for rebalancing the emotions, but when crying is actively encouraged as a willful response to any negative event, it’s a lot like a junkie always looking for their next fix.

    The chemical reaction becomes an end unto itself, rather than a means for rebalancing one’s emotions.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a similar chemical reaction underlying the whole “talk about it” myth. 

  6. Richard Finlay

     

    Misthiocracy: … when crying isactively encouraged as awillful response toany negative event, it’s a lot like a junkie always looking for their next fix….

    Maybe that explains why there are those who aren’t happy unless they can be unhappy.

  7. Misthiocracy

    Last comment, I promise:

    My beloved Cracked.com has a bunch of really good articles on happiness that make a lot of the same arguments, but in a more entertaining way, with links to the actual research AND picture of cute animals.

    The video of a baby porcupine eating a banana is a sure fire way to increase your happiness for one minute and twenty-five seconds.

  8. Sabrdance

    I shocked, shocked, to discover that picking at a wound doesn’t make it heal faster.

    Alas, while the blood is still flowing, it’s sometimes all you can think to do.

  9. Lavaux

    This is the crash-course to healing quickly from a bad break-up:

    Drink a fifth of Bacardi and smoke a pack of cigarettes while listening to Jane’s Addiction. When you wake up, work out, take a shower, and then go out with your buddies. Chase women, drink beer, laugh; do not bleed on your buddies.

    Do something. Don’t think about doing or think about thinking or think. Just do.

    That’ll be $600, please You can pay with cash, check or card.

  10. Dad of Four

    I think watching “High Fidelity” is the best therapy.

  11. sawatdeeka

    I’ve realized that I cannot think about two demanding topics at once.  So if I’m feeling awful about something, the worst I can do is withdraw from daily challenges such as work.  The best cure for stress and negative thoughts is to go substitute in a classroom for a day or work on materials for a presentation due soon. Getting into the flow of demanding tasks crowds all other thoughts from the mind and gives me a mental break from my angst.  I often return from my hard work feeling a bit better. 

    My theory is that wallowing in negativity actually affects the brain physically (with hormones, etc.) and taking a break from analyzing every possible angle of an incident by means of immersion in a challenging activity breaks off the bath of negative physical processes so that the relief we enjoyed was not just perceived, but actual.

    Besides, it’s difficult to be depressed while reading “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” to a bunch of wide-eyed Kindergarteners.

  12. Misthiocracy
    Dad of Four: I think watching “High Fidelity” is the best therapy.

    Movies are a dangerous drug when one is feeling depressed.

    Like the YouTube video of the baby porcupine, they only “work” for the duration of the movie itself. The second the movie’s over the subject is confronted with the problem again.

    Productive activity is much better than movies.  Like a movie, it occupies the mind. Unlike a movie, it provides a longer-lasting increase of positive neurochemicals, and it also leads to other productive activities.  Movies merely lead to more movies.

    The body likes to remain in the state to which it has become accustomed. If you’re in a depressive state, your body fights to stay in that depressive state.

    Merely “taking your mind off it” by engaging in a neutral/passive activity (watching a movie, eating ice cream, yammering on Ricochet ;-) works in the short term, but in the long term you need to replace the negative/non-productive activity (obsessing about Selena Gomez) with a positive/productive activity (abandoning the music industry and taking up carpentry, thereby ridding the planet of your constant inane media oppression).

    For example.

  13. Sweezle

    There is something deliciously indulgent about the break-up experience of  young love. While you are still between the ages of 10 and 18 the drama and emotional roller coaster is better than drugs and something not to be missed.  At the time it almost unbearable.  And when you survive the experience you know you are completely alive and happy you are.

    Adult break-ups have more serious consequences and generally none of the rewards.

  14. Maura Pennington
    C

    Journals are not just for venting.  They are for recollection.  “Intense” emotions, whether positive or negative, can affect the way we immediately perceive life, but it’s never permanent.   Having a record of what we felt at a given time can be a useful guide in later experiences (especially when it comes to repeated lapses in romantic judgment).   A journal that only dwells on the positive would be a bizarre, almost inhuman reflection of life.  Because the truth is: we feel pain.  Even the healthiest people can only forcefully redirect their emotions up to a certain point.  To help someone find value in pain is not a waste of time.

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