2019 Jul 30
Written by Nadeesh Jayasinghe and Shalindi Pandithakoralage – members of The Ohana Project
Regardless of how long you were in a relationship, whether it was a few days or many years, losing someone important to you can be difficult and painful, and can affect your well-being. After a break up, many people naturally go through a grieving process which helps them cope with their emotions and find closure and strength to move on.
This process could sometimes, however, take a person down a difficult path and impact their mental health negatively leading to responses such as insomnia, depression, anxiety, changes in appetite, and even suicidal behaviour. In 2018 alone, there were 288 suicides reported in Sri Lanka due to broken love affairs [Sri Lanka Police – Grave Crimes Statistics 2018]. Of this figure, about 68% of these suicides were by men.
It is important to recognize that we all react and respond to loss and break ups differently. The impact of a breakup can have long lasting effect on us and those around us, if not addressed properly, and can affect our future relationships as well.
Grief is a natural response after a breakup, regardless of the degree, and can come with various losses, such as the loss of hopes and plans for the future, the loss of self, the loss of support, and the loss of companionship. Although feeling these losses can be scary and painful, grieving is essential to the healing process and we should embrace it and allow it to take its course in order for us to move on healthily.
This article will explore some of the feelings and responses that come with heartbreak. It will also look at some healthy coping strategies that will help us acknowledge, reflect, and move on.
The period after a breakup is not an easy place to be in and it can leave one feeling vulnerable to the many emotions and questions which linger in their minds. It can be heart wrenching and leave us feeling like we were the reason for it. Questions like, “What’s wrong with me?”, “Why does this person not love me?”, can trigger a plethora of other feelings and take us down the path of self-blame and self-shame, breaking down our egos and self-esteem even more. In turn, it makes us believe that the breakup was a personal failure and that we lack what is needed to hold someone’s love. These feelings can sometimes be so overwhelming that one may, on impulse, want to go back to their ex-partner regardless of the circumstances that led to the breakup.
How we cope with these feelings will determine how we heal and pick ourselves back up.
Coping from a Breakup
As much as we would like to believe that “time heals all wounds”, time alone doesn’t always heal a broken heart if you don’t address and recognize your feelings. The process of coping has no time limit, and as such, it should not be forced or rushed. We should also keep in mind that we all cope in different ways. What works for someone else may not work for us.
A breakup can be painfully difficult and can take a toll on our mental well-being.
There is a tendency for people to want to “numb” or stop their pain, and as a result they might turn to activities such as drugs, alcohol, emotional eating, “rebound” relationships, or even violence as a way to escape from their emotions. While these activities might temporarily distract them from what they are feeling and provide instant gratification/relief, they are unhealthy and harmful ways to cope with emotions and may have long-term consequences. These repressed feelings might even resurface later on in life.
After the short term band-aid “relief” has worn out, however, the emotions will come back and by not allowing ourselves to accept and experience these emotions and thoughts, it hinders the process of working through what we are experiencing.
Sometimes, in an effort to cope with a breakup, people hang onto to only the positive thoughts and memories about their ex and their relationship. As a result, they tend to selectively remember only the best times and the ex’s best qualities, creating an unbalanced perception of their experience. In doing so, they may forget about the negative realities they may have experienced in the relationship such as their hurt, struggles, and unmet emotional needs. Having a one sided (positive only) reflection of the relationship, creates a skewed reality which adds to the grief of the breakup because it could make us feel that we were the reason for the breakup. It is important that we acknowledge both the good and the bad in the relationship and in our ex in order to have a healthy retrospection to help us move on.
Through healthy coping strategies and time, people become more attuned to process their emotions in a way that will help support the process of moving on and finding closure.
Exploring your Emotions (Emotional Resilience)
As much as we feel the urge to bury our feelings, avoiding them will only hinder the recovery process. There are many emotions that follow a breakup, and although it sounds counterproductive, exploring and allowing ourselves to feel and move through these emotions, without judgement, will give us the head and heart space to process them better. Some strategies include journaling your thoughts, talking to a counsellor/therapist, and guided meditation.
One thing that can help us accept and move through our feelings is to realize that these feelings do not define us nor are they a part of us. Instead, feelings flow through us; they come and they go. It’s when we try to suppress and resist these feelings that we suffer.
Loving yourself through these feelings and validating these feelings allows us to process them but also allows us to not be attached to them.
Compassion is the ability to show love, forgiveness, empathy, and support to those (outside ourselves) who are facing difficulties. Self-compassion, on the other hand, is the compassion we give to ourselves in light of our own difficulties and this has impact on our personal well-being. It is when we treat ourselves the way we would treat a best friend. For example, if your best friend has gone through breakup, would you ever tell them that the break up was their fault or that it was because of their looks or personality? Most probably not. This is, however, a common thing we tell ourselves when we are the ones experiencing the hard times.
When we have a feeling that is uncomfortable, what are we telling ourselves? Most of the time we tell ourselves something negative and this is what keeps us stuck in the feeling. Giving ourselves self-compassion through positive affirmation helps silence the negative inner chatter, allowing us to process our emotions in an appropriate way and rebuild our self-esteem and self-worth.
A break-up does not only affect us emotionally, it can also affect us physically. During a breakup, the brain experiences changes in the levels of hormones such as cortisol and serotonin. Cortisol is a stress hormone and an increase of it sends our bodies into a flight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response). This is the body’s way of preparing to either deal with a “threat” or run away from it and it often results in symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, skin conditions, stomach discomfort, etc.
Serotonin is known as the “feel-good” hormone and when our bodies don’t produce enough of it, such as during a breakup, it could lead to a form of short term stress related depression called situational depression. This is the reason for the sadness, loss of appetite, changes in sleeping patterns, lethargy, and other symptoms experienced during the breakup.
Self-care is an important way to allow the body to recover through these hormonal imbalances. Research shows that physical activity, exercise, healthy eating, being around loved ones, and good sleep increases the production and release of Serotonin. As for elevated cortisol levels, reducing stress is one of the best ways. Allowing yourself to relax, doing a hobby, keeping a journal, and reading are just some ways to reduce stress.
Talking to Someone
After a breakup, it is natural to want to isolate ourselves. However, talking about our feelings with a supportive person can really make a difference in how we cope. This can be at different points after a break up, but opening up about your feelings will help you understand them better and where they are coming from. Having someone there to help reinforce positivity can help promote self-compassion and self-care, which are crucial to help build yourself to who you want to be outside the relationship. Seeing a counsellor or therapist is also a good way to find an objective voice that can help navigate these emotions.
*The Ohana Project is a community of mental health professionals who aim to ‘leave no one behind’. The Ohana Project is always on standby to lend a helping hand to anyone seeking treatment for mental health. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.