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?