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Navigating Heartbreak: A Mental Health Perspective From A Licensed Therapist

Updated: May 7

Dealing with the aftermath of a breakup can be a challenging and emotionally tumultuous experience. When you find yourself on the receiving end of a breakup that you didn't initiate, the journey toward healing can be particularly daunting. You are left with confusion, negative self-talk, and the big question "Why? was I not good enough?". You notice yourself sleeping restlessly, are more anxious, and may feel queasy and nauseous. Your days feel longer, your motivation is tanking, and life feels grey. Everything you knew to be normal has now flipped on its head. But why?


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Interestingly, heartbreak is not just an emotional experience; it also has physiological and psychological effects. Research by Ethan Kross and others (2011) highlights that experiencing social rejection or emotional pain activates similar brain regions as physical pain does. Understanding this connection can help you validate your emotions and experience and recognize that your pain is very much real.


Additionally, studies by Susan S. Hendrick and Clyde Hendrick (2003) shed light on attachment theory, which suggests that our romantic relationships often echo our early experiences with caregivers. This theory helps explain the intense emotions that arise during a breakup, as it taps into our innate need for emotional security and attachment.


Processing Emotions and Grieving


Allowing yourself to process your emotions is an essential step in healing. The Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as the five stages of grief, is often applied to the context of breakup recovery. Although initially proposed for individuals facing impending death, it has been adapted to various types of loss, including the loss associated with breakups.


1. Denial: Initially, you might struggle to accept the reality of the breakup. This is a natural defense mechanism that gives you time to adjust to the new circumstances.

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2. Anger: As reality sets in, you might experience anger towards your ex-partner or the situation. It's important to acknowledge and express this anger in healthy ways, such as through journaling or seeking professional support. Allow yourself to feel the emotion, but do not let it consume you.


3. Bargaining: You might find yourself bargaining with the idea of getting back together or wondering if there was something you could have done differently. Remember that these thoughts are a part of the healing process. Allow them to come and go.


4. Depression: Feelings of sadness, emptiness, and even depression can emerge. It's crucial to seek social support during this phase and engage in activities that promote your well-being. Spend time with friends, distract yourself with activities you enjoy, lean into your support system.


5. Acceptance: Over time, you will begin to accept the reality of the breakup. This doesn't mean you'll stop feeling sad, but it indicates progress toward healing.


Cultivating Self-Compassion


During times of heartbreak, it's easy to blame yourself or harbor feelings of inadequacy. Kristen Neff's research on self-compassion suggests that treating oneself with kindness, recognizing the shared human experience of suffering, and practicing mindfulness can alleviate emotional distress. This approach helps foster a more resilient mindset, allowing you to cope with the pain constructively. Try listening to this guided self-compassion meditation to begin cultivating kindness for yourself.


Reframing and Cognitive Restructuring

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Our thoughts play a significant role in shaping our emotional experiences. Cognitive restructuring, a technique rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy, involves identifying and challenging negative thought patterns. For instance, if you find yourself ruminating on thoughts like "I'll never find love again," you can reframe it to a more balanced perspective such as "This breakup is painful, but I have the strength to heal and grow from this experience." Bring out a pen and paper, and list these negative thoughts as they arrive. Now attempt to reframe them into more positive or neutral statements.


Rediscovering Identity and Pursuits


Breakups can lead to a loss of identity, especially when much of it was intertwined with the relationship. Reconnecting with your interests, hobbies, and passions can help you rebuild a sense of self. Research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci (2000) on self-determination theory emphasizes the importance of intrinsic motivation – engaging in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment, regardless of external validation. Write out a list of 4-5 hobbies that you are interested in exploring or have previously enjoyed. Now pick one and try to commit to seeing it through this week.

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Seeking Professional Support


Lastly, if you find it challenging to cope with the emotional aftermath of the breakup, seeking support from a mental health professional can be incredibly beneficial. Our therapists at Boundless are trained in techniques such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can provide you with tools to manage your emotions, navigate distressing thoughts, and facilitate your journey toward healing.


Recovering from heartbreak when you're not the one who initiated the breakup is a complex and emotional process. By understanding the psychological impact, processing emotions, practicing self-compassion, reframing thoughts, rediscovering your identity, and seeking professional support, you can navigate this journey with resilience and ultimately find the path to healing and growth. Remember that healing takes time, and each step forward is a testament to your strength and ability to overcome adversity.


If you’re ready to take the first step, click on this link to schedule a free consultation to see if we might be a good fit




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