Breakups can be brutal. Here’s what you should know about experiencing depression in your breakup era.
Breaking up is famously hard to do.
Don’t be too surprised if you can’t shake things off after a few days. You may notice some symptoms that mirror depression too.
“Breakups can absolutely lead to depression,” says Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D., ABPP, PLLC, a board-certified health psychologist and author of Getting to Good Riddance: A No Bullsh*t Breakup Survival Guide.
As Eckleberry-Hunt explains, it all depends on a slew of factors like a person’s psychological history, relationship history, social support, and health.
BTW, there’s a small study behind this, too. One 2019 study suggests that though some folks run into feelings of depression post-breakup, the way we respond to breakups may be based on the reason or cause for the breakup.
The study notes that certain feelings — betrayal, rejection, feeling blindsided, etc. — can boost the odds of experiencing depression-like symptoms after things go south.
“Depression is often multifactorial,” Eckleberry-Hunt says. “But breakups can be a triggering event. It has a lot to do with what the breakup means to the person and how it’s managed. Breakups are hard — even if we know they are for the best.”
Kalley Hartman, LMFT, the clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, CA adds that breakups can often cause relational depression, which she explains is a type of depression that affects people’s ability to form and maintain meaningful relationships.
“When someone experiences relational depression, they may struggle to engage in healthy communication and intimacy with other people,” Hartman says. “They may also feel disconnected from their friends and family, resulting in social isolation and further feelings of loneliness or emptiness.”
This makes sense. Think about some relational changes that can come with a breakup, like losing mutual friends, cutting ties with your ex’s family (and pets), moving out and living alone, etc.
“The impact on social support systems is undeniable,” Eckleberry-Hun says. “The depth of connections depends on how long the relationship lasted, but it certainly can compound the sense of loss. Social support is an essential element of recovery from a breakup — it’s having great friends who don’t judge and support you that get you through. It’s having things to do with others that give you hope.
She also adds that the holidays can be an especially difficult time for breaking up.
Eckleberry-Hunt says people often feel exhausted after a breakup. “They feel completely sick inside and like they are losing their minds. Their worlds are turned upside down.”
Here are some other breakup symptoms, according to Eckleberry-Hunt:
Our experts weigh in, offering nine tips for coping with your breakup.
1. Take care of your mental and physical health
Hartman says to make time for activities that make you feel good and help maintain your physical, mental, and emotional health. This could include spending time outdoors, engaging in physical activity, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, attending counseling sessions or therapy appointments, and seeking support from family members or friends.
She adds that it’s also important to practice self-care by remembering to do things you truly enjoy, i.e., reading books, listening to music, taking walks, or participating in hobbies like painting or drawing.
2. Talk about your feelings
Another important post-breakup task, according to Hartman, is expressing your emotions in a healthy way.
“Talk with someone you trust, such as a friend or family member, or reach out to a therapist if necessary. Writing down your thoughts and feelings can also be helpful in helping you to process the breakup and make sense of the emotions that come up,” she says.
3. Take things one day at a time
We love this one.
“Don’t expect too much from yourself during this difficult period,” Hartman says. “Be mindful of how much you are taking on emotionally, and try not to rush the healing process. Recognize that it takes time for wounds to heal, so don’t pressure yourself into getting over it quickly.”
4. Exercise even though you don’t feel like it
“Get up and move,” Eckleberry-Hunt says. “This is based on science and will help you feel better.”
Remember that balance is key, though. Don’t overwork yourself in the gym in order to avoid the present moment. Instead, find ways to move around, even if small, to get your blood flowing. For example, yoga can be calming and may help with anxiety too.
5. Journal even though you won’t feel like doing this either
Eckleberry-Hunt understands you may not feel like it, but she still encourages people to journal and write about how they’re feeling and doing.
“Write about goals. Hold yourself accountable to those goals. Argue your negative self-talk. This is also a great reminder when you have written facts that you need to be reminded of later when you are re-writing history about your ex.”
Good point. Nostalgia can be a cute little liar.
6. Stay off social media, don’t look at old photos or messages, and don’t text your ex
Yikes. This one won’t be easy, we know. But it’s from Eckleberry-Hunt, and we know she’s on to something here. What to do instead?
Avoiding socials and photos is one thing, but cutting off contact is a whole other beast, but it can help.
“If this is truly a time to heal, focus on healing. Do not communicate,” Eckleberry-Hunt says.
She also stresses the importance of not turning to alcohol or other substances to numb the pain.
“Not only do these contribute to depression, but they will lead to you saying and doing things you will regret,” she says.
7. Rediscover who you are outside of the relationship
Hartman says to take some time to reconnect with yourself and your interests.
“Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be and focus on activities that bring you joy,” she says. “This will help you move forward in life without your partner and make it easier to develop a sense of independence and identity.”
8. Focus on the positive aspects of your life
How to do this? Hartman says to remind yourself of the things that make you unique and special or think about past experiences that made you feel good.
“Acknowledge the blessings in your life, such as friends and family members who care for you, a job or education opportunity, or even simple pleasures like a tasty meal or time spent in nature,” she says.
Meditation is a good choice, too.
9. Let go of regret
Easier said than done, we know, but it’s worth a try. Hartman reminds us it’s important to let go of feelings of guilt or regret associated with the breakup.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but ultimately we must forgive ourselves for our past decisions in order to heal and move on,” she says. “Accepting what has happened can be difficult, but it is necessary for growth and personal development.”
Grief and depression can feel similar early on, according to Eckleberry-Hunt, but she says there are some key differences.
“Grief is a natural response to loss with sadness, tearfulness, shock/denial, confusion, anger, and low energy. The length of time that grief lasts can be culturally dependent, so we don’t put a time limit on this.”
Eckleberry-Hunt says depression, on the other hand, is considered a pathological disorder.
“Depression symptoms can significantly affect function in day-to-day life: sadness/irritability, decreased or absent hope, lack of pleasure, low motivation/energy, sleep disturbance, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and sometimes, thoughts of not wanting to live,” she says.
Eckleberry-Hunt tells us grief and depression are also treated very differently.
“For grief, we do talk therapy (discussion of what was lost and allowing sadness) and reading for healing.”
For depression, she says talk therapy is also commonly deployed but more focused on skewed ways of seeing the world.
“We argue negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs, and we sometimes consider medication,” she says. “While we look at negative self-talk and self-defeating beliefs in a breakup, it’s focused on the breakup. With depression, the thoughts and beliefs are globally focused, and we don’t medicate grief away.”
PSA: Unresolved grief or grief not well-managed can cause depression.
“Grief in a person with a strong history of depression can lead to depression,” Eckleberry-Hunt says.
This is why it’s important to seek treatment if you believe your breakup has caused depression or severe grief in your life.
Check out our mental health resource guide here.
If you have a healthcare professional or therapist you feel comfortable with, it’s a good idea to visit them.
Hartman says discussing your emotions with a doctor or therapist can help you identify and address any underlying mental health issues that might be causing the depression.
“Your healthcare provider can also provide recommendations for treatments such as counseling sessions, medications, lifestyle changes, or other interventions that may help you cope with the emotional distress of the breakup.”
Plus, Hartman adds, talking to a professional may help you gain insight into how better to manage the situation in terms of communication and decision-making.
Eckleberry-Hunt says if a person is having thoughts of suicide, that person should def see a healthcare provider.
“If the grief and sadness is lasting beyond a month and isn’t getting better (and it is also interfering with tasks in life), that is a good time to see a healthcare provider. I am a strong proponent of counseling, however,” she says.
Unless you’re Nicole Kidman gleefully skipping out of divorce court post-Tom cruise marriage, breaking up is generally sucky. It can make you feel depressed or like you’re dealing with grief.
It’s a good idea to:
- find a strong support system
- find healthy ways of expressing what you’re feeling
- find ways to reconnect with yourself and hobbies that spark joy
- move your body, get out of your head and meditate, etc.
- see a therapist if you can
- seek treatment for depression
- avoid numbing pain with substances
The good news is breakups often lead to a better situation after the clouds clear. Keep that in mind as you self-care it up for a while.